Escape From New York – II

Even in the film future of 1997, accelerating tiny bits of metal is an effective way of solving problems for our characters

So last time we covered the historical context of John Carpenter’s Escape From New York and took a little trip down data analysis lane to see how crime statistics compare between then and now. Today we’ll see how the guns of the film are portrayed and get some information about them for the curious.

MAC-10, it’s on the movie poster so it must be good

First up is the mighty MAC-10 issued to Snake by his friends in the USPF in order to rescue the President from the Manhattan Island Prison. It was designed by Gordon Ingram in 1964 to be a cheap, compact weapon capable of suppressed full-auto fire for use by the US military under the designation M-10. Chambered for either .45 cal ACP or 9x19mm parabellum, it was the .45 that garnered interest due to its subsonic nature and ability to be suppressed more effectively.

This pairing of silencer and submachine gun happened in 1967 when Gordon partnered with Mitchell WerBell III and his Sionics M14SS-1 suppressor to create what they tried to market to the military as the “Whispering Death” for use in the Vietnam War. Allegedly a small quantity of the units were sent to the US Army 9th Infantry Division in 1969 for evaluation but the package was never adopted by the military as a standard issue weapon.

The “Whispering Death”

Firing 230gr full metal jacketed [FMJ] rounds at 290m/s, the MAC-10 had a muzzle velocity of approximately 630 joules from its 4-1/2″ barrel. A 30 round box magazine coupled with a cyclic fire rate of 1000 rounds per minute meant the user could empty the weapon in under two seconds. In the film Snake decides to use this ability, and a lot of ammunition, to create a bullet door in order to escape a pack of crazies hot on his heels in an apartment building.

When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail

In an obvious use of the Rule of Cool, Snake’s MAC-10 is equipped with a suppressor mounted scope. While I appreciate the nod towards trying to improve the accuracy of a weapon once described by weapons researcher David Steele, as “fit only for combat in a phone booth“, there is only one scene in the film where anyone appears to attempt to aim the MAC-10, and it isn’t even our anti-hero but his rival, the Duke.

I’m not sure that is an approved firing position but extra points for using cowboy boots

I assume from looking at the scope that it is a rifle scope, and not a pistol scope, which means the normal eye relief is about 3-5 inches, not two and half feet as demonstrated above by our villain, the Duke, during his hobby time using the President as target practice. Just how quiet is the “Whispering Death”, well this short video will give you an impression of both single and auto fire performance. In short, pretty impressive, though the silencer in the video is a modern one and not the original Sionics model, it still sounds better than the movie effects.

Speaking of scopes, next up is the Smith & Wesson Model 15 that is also a parting gift from the USPF before Snake makes his glider approach to the World Trade Center. Recognizable as a Model 67 variant, due its stainless steel finish, the gun is not the .357 magnum, Model 66 variant, people may believe it to be due to the ejector rod for the cylinder not being shrouded as it is on the higher powered weapons.

12 bullets, huh, yeah that should be plenty…

Unlike the scope on the MAC-10, which is mounted where no other scope has ever been-or should be-mounted, at least the S&W looks like an appropriate pistol scope properly mounted. There is a holster and belt shown as well which means we have all the makings of an accurate portrayal of the S&W Model 67 and scope in the film.

Dammit Andrienne!

Unless our ill-fated heroine is using some sort of Jedi mind trick, or has a third eye tucked under those lovely curls, we are going to have to assume the 147gr FMJ .38 special rounds coming out of that barrel are going to be putting their 350 joules of energy into something besides her target.

Continuing down our firearm foray we end with the gun of choice of the USPF themselves, the M16A1 with the forward hand grip removed. I suppose it is to make the weapon look more futuristic for the film but removal of the grip is going to make some people’s hands a tad toasty if they actually fire the thing. Perhaps thats way they are shown holding the 20 round box magazine with gloves instead?

Snake is probably thinking to himself, “how was I captured by such stupid people?”

Of all the guns in the film that could really benefit from the inclusion of a scope, the 20 inch barreled M16A1 doesn’t get one. With iron sights adequate out to maybe 100-150 meters, the lack of optics doesn’t allow the capable 5.56×45 NATO round to reach it’s real potential to put holes in people at nearly 1000m/s out to 300-400 meters. Considering much of their time is spent shooting from a helicopter or atop a 20 meter wall at escaping prisoners the weapon would really benefit from the extra accuracy.

So there we have it, the three primary guns from the film Escape From New York. I did leave out one other that is shown but never used, a Smith & Wesson Model 10 snub nose carried by Bob Hauk, the USPF leader. Of course, perhaps after leaving the President with a tape of big band music instead of the cold-fusion explanation he was expecting, Hauk may be sent running after Snake during the credits and we just don’t get to see it.

Escape From New York – I

Not quite Judge Dredd, but close

The world of the 1981 John Carpenter film classic, Escape From New York, is a dystopian future United States convulsed by riots, crime and the effects of a war with China and the Soviet Union. The film starts with a mechanical narration by Jamie Lee Curtis, setting the scene that crime has spiraled out of control.

I guess all the Prozac released that year didn’t help

This leads to the obvious solution of isolating Manhattan island and turning it into a modern day oubliette, aka the only federal maximum security prison in the country, lacking any possibility of parole. This isolation is enforced by surrounding the far shorelines of the Hudson and East rivers with tall walls and mining all the remaining bridges. The complex is controlled by the United States Police Force (USPF) who make monthly supply drops via helicopters onto the island and kills anyone who tries to escape.

Obviously real estate prices have taken a hit on the upper east side

I love looking back on future history to see how things turn out when people use the TV Trope 20 Minutes Into the Future to extrapolate their present. This is not a criticism of their attempt at predicting the future, more just a morbid curiosity that sometimes turns up interesting correlations.

Unfortunately, the film did not elaborate on several interesting points of the backstory but the novelization by Mike McQuay luckily did so we can look there to round things out. For instance, the war between the super-powers did not result in nuclear weapons exchanges but rather chemical weapons being deployed on a massive scale. Chemical weapons that were often slow acting nerve agents that drove people crazy as it destroyed parts of their brains.

This so called gas madness drove citizens of targeted cities into violent crime sprees that explains the lead in title page about a 400% increase in crime. New York was the first target of fire bombing and gas weapons and the result was to turn much of the city into a lawless wasteland populated by cannibals and other crazies. Already naturally isolated by water, similar to Alcatraz, the decision was made to shove convicts onto the asylum island and throw away the key.

Soldiers fighting overseas were also victims of exposure over time that caused them to become unstable and battle crazed. These features were put to use upon their return stateside as they were formed into the black suited enforcement officers of the USPF. The court system could not keep up with, or afford, due process procedures and so in the chaos these black bellies, as they were known, became sanctioned judge and jury. Their efforts effectively drove nearly three million convicts from across the country onto Manhattan island.

Glowing wireframe is very early 1980’s tech flash

So let’s poke at the crime statistics a little bit and see where it takes us. When Carpenter was writing the screenplay for the film it was 1976 so that is a good place to start to see what his worldview was based on. According to data, the total crime index per 100,000 people in the population was 5,287 in 1976. This is based on the two constituent indices of violent crimes at 468 and property crimes at 4,819 per 100k.

In our 1988 the US crime index was at 5,664, with violent crimes increased to 637 and property crimes up to 5,027 per 100k. So the increase was about 7% compared to the doomsday scenario presented in the film. What if we consider the highest the crime index reached? It reached 5,950 in 1980, with violent crimes peaking in 758 in 1991 and property crimes at 5,353 also in 1980. So at their worst, violent crimes reached 162% of their 1976 value, adjusted for population, and property crime at about 111%.

Since the film is about a prison, how about we look closer at prison incarceration data? Well according to the New York Times archive, in 1976 there were 283,268 people in state and federal prisons. In 1988, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 627,402 people in state and federal prisons which is 221% of the 1976 number, or 197% adjusted for population growth. What about the highest prison incarceration numbers we have seen in the US? In 2009 the total prison population reached 1,615,487, a 570% increase over the 1976 value, or 405% when adjusted for population growth.

So depending on how you look at the statistics, the US reached a 400% increase in convicts per-capita in 2009, rather than 1988, but without requiring walling off Manhattan island or World War 3.

Or Snake Plissken for that matter.

We’ll talk the guns of Escape From New York in a future post

Boons & Banes

The effects of dice modifiers on common Traveller 2d6 rolls

The normal odds of a 2d6 roll versus the default target of 8+ in Traveller are well known by players as being just under half, or 42% to be exact. The use of dice modifiers (DM), such as +1/-1, etc, are commonly used to reflect ability and conditions related to the task. On the surface it would appear a DM of +1 adds an equal benefit as is taken away by a DM of -1. As can be seen below, this is not quite true.

The cold, hard math of it all

Due to the use of two dice, the choice of 8 as a target and the inability to roll a 1, the odds are actually shifted slightly towards favoring the positive DMs over the negative DMs. A +1 grants an extra 17% to the chance of success while a -1 lowers the chance by only 14%. This trend continues all the way to a 50% increase for a DM of +4 with only a 39% decrease for a DM of -4. The returns diminish with each further step, a DM of +2 is not twice as good as +1 and so on.

The end result of all this gives the players a bigger bump up when they have an advantage but doesn’t cut them down as much when they have a disadvantage. This tarnishes the games’ reputation for ruthlessly punishing players but is an acceptable result when you consider that failure is frustrating and good gaming often gives the players a ‘heroic edge’.

In 2nd Edition Mongoose Traveller a mechanic was added called Boons and Banes that allowed another type of modifier, a third d6. The Boon condition allows players to keep the best two of the three d6 rolled while the Bane does the exact opposite and forces keeping the lowest two. So what does this do to the odds in the end? As can be seen in the above image, it is similar to adding a DM of +1.5 or -1.5 to the baseline 2d6 roll. So is best used when a DM of +1/-1 is not enough to represent what the referee wants and a DM of +/-2 is just a bit too much. A similar result would occur when using both the Boon/Bane system with another normal DM such as +1/-1. The result would shift up in the middle of the next range.

The takeaway? Don’t be afraid of negative DM’s, they might sting a little but they are really just moving the needle back towards neutral more than inflicting serious punishment when viewed across the number of rolls in a typical game.

Awake O Dead

Let the splintered bones burrow from the grave pall.

It has been over 15 years since the Vampire Counts of 6th Edition Warhammer Fantasy have ridden across a battlefield for me, but for the undead time holds little change. “The Laws of Undeath“, as the rules called them, made the Vampire counts army a frightening opponent in more ways than one.

Their lack of ability to march, or move at double their normal rate, unless within 12″ of their General meant the mass of troops made a slow shamble toward their opponent. Of course, many opponents didn’t use this time wisely to pepper the undead with missile fire, instead closing with the Counts’ army only to realize at the last moment that close combat is exactly where the undead wanted to be.

The undead drums of war

As it says on tin, Cause Fear, was a staple ability of all undead units. Forcing any unit being charged by a fear causing unit or wishing to charge a fear causing unit to take a Psychology Test, basically a 2d6 roll vs the Leadership statistic of the troops or their nearby leader. Failure could result in a unit failing to charge or shoot during their turn or require 6’s to hit during their first turn of close combat. It also could automatically break a defeated unit in close combat if the loser’s unit strength was less than the victor’s.

Further, being undead granted the Vampire Counts’ units the linked abilities of Immune to Psychology and Immune to Break Tests. The former exempting them from worrying about the effects of Panic, Terror, Frenzy, Stubborn, Fear, Stupidity and Hatred during play. In short, rendering the nifty bag of tricks many other armies brought to the table just so much fluff in the description block instead.

The latter ability of being unbreakable caused units to mire the battlefield with minefields of attrition. They would take an additional wound for every point the Vampire Count unit lost a combat by and which was not preventable by saves. On the surface this extra damage seems like a fair trade, however that loss was often short lived due to Necromancy spells such as the Invocation of Nehek which could create between 1D6, 2D6 and 3D6 Skeletons or Zombies with a casting difficulty of 3+, 7+ and 11+ respectively. Every turn.

The achilles heel of the Vampire Counts army lay in their reliance on the General to be on the field of battle. Once destroyed, every undead unit is required to take a Leadership test or suffer a number of wounds equal to the failure amount. This is further bad news because undead troops are not exactly what you would call, leadership material in and of themselves with Skeletons and Zombies having a 3 and 2 out of 10 respectively.

Mannfred von Carstein rides again with his summoned wolves

This vulnerability however is wrapped in an extremely dangerous package such as the dreaded Mannfred von Carstein. Riding a barded Nightmare steed, this legendary count is expensive to field, extraordinarily difficult to kill and just plain dangerous to be around. His Cloak of Darkness provides a 3+ ward save just in case his toughness of 5 doesn’t keep him safe enough from the raging battle. He carries the Sword of Unholy Power which grants a extra magic dice to cast spells with on the following round, every time he takes an unsaved wound.

Von Carstein is also Level 4 wizard and wields the Ebony Staff which grants an extra free Necromancy spell cast each turn. Combined with his sword, described above, means Mannfred can unleash a serious amount of Necromantic firepower both at range and up close. Being the highest level of wizard possible, he will always have 4 of the 6 available Necromantic spells at his disposal and will be using probably two of them every turn.

He can summon fresh troops with the always available Invocation of Nehek, or use it to heal himself and others. With Hand of Dust, he can reduce himself to a single attack, rather than his bewildering normal 5, but that attack kills any model instantly with no armor save. His enemies better have brought their ward saves or doom is waiting.

For foes that try to stay out of reach, he can direct the Gaze of Nagash at a target within 24″ and cause 2D6 Strength 4 hits as a magic missile. Also at range, he can inflict the Curse of Years, causing every model in a unit to roll a D6 and suffer a wound on a result of 6 until the spell is dispelled.

If von Carstein so wishes, he can also enhance his numerous shambling hordes with Hellish Vigour, providing a first strike attack, or Vanhel’s Danse Macabre to allow a sudden 8″ charge.

Lest his opponent think that fielding their own mighty wizard is enough to bottle the wily Count, he also packs some nifty tricks just for carrying the von Carstein moniker that can’t be dispelled. Once per game he can summon D3 Dire Wolves that can enter from any table edge, a nasty surprise for any rear echelon lurkers. Being the center of attention and boasting a personality to match, von Carstein also has a longer than normal Leadership range of 18″ instead of 12″ which can catch many opponents off balance when they thought a undead unit was vulnerably away from their fearless leader.

Something wicked this way comes….

His most powerful inherent ability is Call Winds, which requires him to remain stationary but then subjects the entire battlefield to a -1 shooting penalty and grounds all flying units, forcing them to move at their ground speed and contend with normal rules for obstacles, scenery and turning. This grants his troops a reprieve from pesky ranged fire and brings those high and mighty eagle riding elves out of the clouds.

The hordes of undead have graced the Warhammer Fantasy battlefield for many editions and caused much consternation about how to thwart their nihilistic plans. Despite changes in specific rules they have always provided genre appropriate fun, at least for the devious player at the helm. While the troops are far from the best fighters and have a few tactical limitations, the one thing they are is reliable. They will march on until the end of time forcing an opponent to kill every last one of them.

Top Secret Homage Cover

Always loved a good espionage game, so I decided to homebrew an homage recreation of the classic Top Secret/S.I. box artwork using things I had laying around the house.

Always loved a good espionage game, so I decided to homebrew an homage recreation of the classic Top Secret/S.I. box artwork using things I had laying around the house. The retro-props scattered about the image are from the wonderful Dark Adventure Radio Series CDs produced by the HPL Historical Society.

I’ve left the actual Top Secret/S.I. logo off the image for a couple of reasons. One, I didn’t want to tread too heavily on “Fair Use” laws and two, I just couldn’t get the font to look right 🙂

About that logo…

I know what you’re thinking, the site logo for Grognard Gravity Well is rather striking, but what does it mean?

I know what you’re thinking, the site logo for Grognard Gravity Well is rather striking, but what does it mean?

Since logos typically combine ideograms with words to represent a public brand it must mean something right? It looks very fluid, like something you’d see in neon in a cyberpunk setting. Perhaps it is the Kanji symbol “dai” that translates to “big” in english.


Except the symbol is flipped upside down and has a dot associated with it. Does the opposite orientation have the opposite meaning and hence “small“? Nope, the symbol “sho” represents “small“.


That Japanese logograms train of thought apparently doesn’t lead anywhere, so what are we left to think now about the logo meaning? Maybe the answer is more abstract and related to the wording. We could say the symbol consists of three distinct parts; a circle, a line and vee shape.

The vee shape looks like a direction, perhaps a vector pointing towards a boundary.

The line certainly makes a nice representation of a boundary, but of what, the circle?

If the circle represents an object of significant mass, like a planet or star, then maybe it all makes sense because the mass has gravity and the vee could represent the “gravity well“. That seems tidy indeed!

Of course it could also just be a grognard stick figure falling on his head due to gravity, who am I to say….I only work here.

Classic Old School Gaming

They share themes of simple, hackable rule mechanics that trust in referees to make judgements rather than exhaustive pages of unbending rules. If there are pages of rules, they are guidelines for the referee not weapons for the players.

So what differs between classic old school gaming and the old school revival [OSR] role-playing game movement you ask? Well, like most things involving more than two people, opinions vary.

The OSR RPG movement tends to stick to an end point defined by the Moldvay/Mentzer editions of Dungeons & Dragons in the early 1980s. This generally allows the original versions of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest and Traveller to join the B/X or BECMI D&D sets on the OSR roster. They share themes of simple, hackable rule mechanics that trust in referees to make judgements rather than exhaustive pages of unbending rules. If there are pages of rules, they are guidelines for the referee not weapons for the players.

That cut-off point in time excludes some great classic games that I enjoyed thoroughly in my youth so OSR doesn’t exactly describe what I’m going for here on the blog. I’m therefore defining classic old school gaming [COSG] as expanding to include excellent RPGs first published in the 12 year span known as the Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan presidencies. For those of you not familiar with the chronological mile markers of the “Peanut Farmer” and the “Gipper”, it is a period of time starting in January of 1977 and ending in January of 1989.

Jimmy Carter
Ronald Reagan

This time period contains both the great first generation of games but also the remarkable second generation that was built on the shoulders of the first with interesting mechanics and new licenses from Marvel, Star Wars and Middle Earth IP holders. I enjoyed many games of both generations with my personal list of memorable titles below. There are of course other games that fall into the time period like Victory Games’ James Bond 007, Columbia Games’ HarnMaster and Palladium’s Robotech, but I am keeping the list to ones I personally owned and played.

  • Role-Playing Games
    • Dungeons & Dragons Basic/Expert [Moldvay] – TSR 1981
    • Dungeons & Dragons Basic/Expert [Mentzer] – TSR 1983
    • Advanced Dungeons & Dragons – TSR 1977
    • Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Ed- TSR 1987
    • Gamma World – TSR 1978
    • Star Frontiers – TSR 1982
    • Top Secret – TSR 1980
    • Call of Cthulhu – Chaosium 1981
    • GURPS – Steve Jackson Games 1986
    • Middle Earth Roleplaying – Iron Crown Enterprises 1984
    • Traveller – GDW 1977
    • Twilight 2000 – GDW 1984
    • Traveller 2300 – GDW 1986
    • Star Wars – West End Games 1987
    • MechWarrior – FASA 1986
    • Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay – Games Workshop 1986

Many of these classic titles have gone on to have multiple successful editions over the decades, a testament to the charm and uniqueness they brought into the gaming landscape.

Unfortunately, not all my original copies of these games successfully made the move with me from the Midwest to the South in the early 90’s while attending college. I am still mad about not having my original Ravenloft isometric map over 30 years later. The recent establishment of the PDF marketplace for out-of-print games and print-on-demand has luckily allowed myself, and many other gamers/collectors, to reacquire these classic old school titles.

So that’s my take on what classic old school gaming is in a nutshell. The same nostalgic Carter-Reagan period can also be used to capture classic old school movies (Escape from New York, Aliens, Blade Runner), television (Battlestar Galactica, Miami Vice, Magnum P.I.) and books (The Shining, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Name of the Rose). So while I can’t promise not to color outside the lines on this blog, this period in time defines the culture that influenced a lot of the entertainment I consumed so I’m using it as a handy reference. Plus I’ve never seen anyone else define their gaming using Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan so I’m hoping for points for originality from the judges.