Saturday, February 24, 2018

Gaming Settings

CC by-nc-sa Lonnie Dunn, found here:
As I've been working on a fantasy RPG that works from different assumptions than the D&D stream (while still being "old school", since it draws heavily on Traveller for its mechanics), I've been thinking about what makes a setting good for gaming. Here are some of those thoughts, taken as a quick tour through some gaming and fiction worlds.

Middle-Earth: Tolkien's world is great for his stories, but terrible for gaming. Everything in it is already pretty well set and with little wiggle room. Plus, it is the prototype of what we might call "generic gaming fantasy", with its elves, dwarves, humans, and halflings. While I love it for Tolkien's stories, for gaming it is dreary and dull. A couple of games manage to work some usable gaming material out of it, but in each case it is either by leaving Tolkien's setting behind to some degree or by so limiting the area and scope that the players can't get their characters tied up in Tolkien's plots. One thing that I do love about Middle-Earth is Tolkien's proclivity toward nature writing. A lot of people count that as a flaw in his works, but I love it. And the singing too.

Glorantha: While it has elves and dwarves, Glorantha does everything so differently that it is just bonkers. Anyway, elves (aldrayami) and dwarves (mostali) are the merest sideshows in the craziness of Gloranthan societies. With ducks, trolls, and even wilder thinking species, Glorantha is a place people will either love or hate. The bronze age aesthetic appeals to me, though I sometimes get lost in Stafford's wildness. The way that spirits and magic are handled in the setting is well worth anyone examining, and one can examine it from the perspective of simulation (RuneQuest) or narrative (HeroQuest), depending on your predilection. It might be best to look at how both games approach the setting.

Oerth (aka The World of Greyhawk): While this is technically generic gaming fantasy of the type noted above, the treatment of the setting as a real place, where population numbers and numbers of troops are recorded, where trade goods are placed by region of origin, and where gaming necessities like examining what the players are doing as a profession are incorporated as institutions in the setting make this one of the most vital and essential gaming settings to look at. It doesn't hurt that it's also one of the most diverse settings, with the populations of the centerpiece continent, the Flanaess, being largely people of color (and this has been true for longer than that was something that audiences demanded).

Tékumel: Probably the first setting specifically for gaming to be published - though it originated long before gaming, Professor Barker developed it in a role-playing campaign. As a result, it has some elements that are specifically directed toward the needs of player-characters in the setting, such as the underworld of every major city. Being the first, it was also not tied to the assumptions of previous efforts and so is a gloriously insane look at some of the potentials of worldbuilding. Like the earliest D&D games seem to have been, it is a "science-fantasy" setting, with advanced technology sitting next to marvelous magic. If you're a worldbuilder and haven't looked at Tékumel yet, you're missing out.

Dark Sun: This was the first published setting I saw where the potentials of worldbuilding came clear to me. It happened as I was sitting in on a game session, waiting for one of the players, and I listened as the party leader chose to set aside some gold in favor of carrying more water. That was stunning to me at the time, since I had gotten used to players taking as much gold as possible to maximize their experience points. Just crazy! I looked further into it, and was unimpressed by some of the decisions, but the way that the desert environment was baked into the setting still leaves me in awe. The ways that the generic gaming fantasy thinking species were re-imagined is worth examining. I also learned how important a seemingly little thing like logistics can be to creating flavor.

Hârn: Yes, humans, dwarves, and elves. There are some weaknesses of this setting, but the lovingly crafted detail is inspiring. Treating characters as if they were more than just a collection of statistics (though there are a lot of statistics in the game that goes along with the setting, it is also suitable for a number of different rules sets), and the setting as if it were more than merely a backdrop in front of which characters kill things, helps to set a tone that I appreciate deeply.

Spelljammer: A look at what can be done with generic gaming fantasy if cut loose from some of its assumptions. I love it, but it seems to have been eclipsed by Planescape, perhaps because the existence of Spelljamming ships deforms other settings that include them, so that Oerth, the Forgotten Realms, and Krynn sat uneasily among the assumed worlds of the setting and should never have been included there in the first place.

The Young Kingdoms: Worth examining to see how a fiction setting (in this case, the Elric of Melniboné stories) can be fitted to the needs of a gaming campaign. By focusing on areas that are mentioned but only incompletely explored in the fiction sources, while carefully avoiding breaking canon, the setting details in the Stormbringer RPG (and its other - in my opinion inferior - incarnation, Elric) provide an interesting and alternative take on some concepts that have become over-familiar. The Melnibonéans sit as a sort of decadent elvish society that provides a useful contrast to the sorrowful or joyful ones that one can get from emphasizing different aspects of Tolkien's elves.

Hyboria: Speaking of Elric (who was explicitly created to be the antithesis of Conan), Howard's setting happens to be useful in gaming terms, with plenty of different directions to choose to travel as characters. It's also very helpful in providing a world in which all, well most, of the thinking species are just humans. Unfortunately, in part it does this by making all sorts of assumptions about "race" and whatnot, so it should be examined carefully and sifted finely to extract the useful parts.

Which reminds me to add that I am not very fond of settings that try to "reimagine orcs" as noble whatevers. As I have often said, if you're doing that, why do you have orcs at all? What is it about orcs that you need in that setting and cannot get from just making the adversaries human? The whole point of orcs is to give players a foe they can slaughter with a minimum of moral quandary. "Subverting" that simply removes the only reason for orcs to exist. It's one thing to examine orc society in detail, as is done in Hârn for example, but pointless to make them out to be some sort of noble savage, unjustly misunderstood by humanity. That role is equally suitable for humans, whether of a different skin color than the players' characters or perhaps just with differing sartorial assumptions, and more pertinent for that theme as well. The subverted orc is just a trap for the players that they can't rightly get out of: "Here are some orcs, go ahead and kill them!" "OK, now that you've killed a bunch of them, here's why you're awful people for doing that." It's not a moral test, it's just being a shitty Referee.

Anyway, the point here is that a gaming setting should pay attention to what the players will be doing with their characters in the setting. You can't just plop them down and assume that they will do things. You have to give them things to do, and you have to arrange the setting so that they will be able to do those things. For instance, Oerth has the institution of the "adventurer", who is someone who does a certain type of thing and is given privileges to pursue that occupation in the assumed laws of the land. In Tékumel, there are networks of tunnels underneath the cities that interested parties can explore in a search for lost technology and such. And so on. Put those things in your world setting.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Lord of the Rings, Power Creep, and Notes Toward a Manifesto

There's been a minor surfeit of blog posts about Middle-Earth lately (a couple of days ago, something like four different posts happened within a few hours, and it seems that none of the bloggers had been communicating with each other over it). It's interesting to me because I've been re-reading the Tolkien books since the beginning of the year, and re-watching the extended Lord of the Rings films (Jackson really should have stopped there). I continued on that cinematic retrospective by re-watching a bunch of '80s-era "barbarian fantasy" films, but that's another story. In any case, I am not sure why there's been such a surge of Tolkien in the gaming blog community lately, but I have to say that I'm happy to see it.

It's interesting to me that Tolkien expresses one of the themes that I've been pursuing in gaming (a theme, sadly, which the industry as a whole has apparently not only abandoned but seemingly repudiated): the theme of the heroism of the small. By that, I don't necessarily mean small in size, though that is how it sometimes manifests in the literature, but the heroism of those who are not granted extraordinary powers (or those whose supposedly extraordinary powers are of such a nature that keeps them still within the realms of ordinary people).

I want to remember that a mere 4th level Fighting Man was given the title of "Hero", and that it only takes 8th level to be a "Superhero". These crazy ideas of 15th or 20th level (or more!) should be limited to actual gods, or at least demigods. The antics of the characters in The Order of the Stick should be remembered as those of outlandishly powerful ones, not assumed as the baseline for what player-characters are able to do.

I think that I first noticed this was happening when GURPS 4th edition increased the recommended baseline of character power (starting points value) by 50% over the previous edition, from 100 points to 150 points. Later, they decided that their attempt to return to the traditional "dungeon crawl" style of play, which was therefore based in large part on D&D and similar games, would recommend that characters start at the amazing level of 250 points, 2 and a half times that of "heroic" characters from the previous edition. When I would express disapproval of this in the forums or to GURPS bloggers, I would be dismissed lightly with variations of "it's fun!", and nevermind that I was sitting there telling them that it wasn't fun for me.

Of course, we're all quite aware that the 5th edition of D&D has steeply deprecated the low levels, getting characters to 4th level in about the same number of experience points that used to bring them their first level increase in pre-WotC editions. Previously, those first three levels were considered important, being, as the apparently apocryphal quote attributed to Gary Gygax has it, the characters' backstory (the earliest version of the quote found on the internet by people attempting to source it actually specifies the first six levels). Even if apocryphal, however, it remains true that it was at 4th level that the Fighting Man was first called a Hero. Now, though, those first three levels are just something to race through to get to "the good stuff".

As a brief aside, this is all related to one of the most obnoxious types of gaming story that can be inflicted on others: the "Natural 20". Somehow, the 5% chance has risen to some sort of magical power in gaming, probably due to critical hit rules being blown out of proportion. Clueless gamers have perpetrated countless boring stories about how this or that improbable thing happened in their game because they rolled a "natural 20", or sometimes a 1, and the Referee ruled that meant that something otherwise impossible occurred. The fact that one or two of these stories are actually funny only makes the rest of them that much worse, as the aforementioned clueless gamers are unable to discriminate between the good and the bad, which may be the very reason that they are clueless in the first place.

Anyway, this tendency in published gaming to move toward higher starting power levels, or quickly getting to them, has caused me to move back toward games that don't make those high-powered assumptions. Traveller, in its various incarnations, tends in that direction, so it's been very attractive to me. Well, in the original and MegaTraveller versions, at least. Marc Miller's Traveller (T4), too, and maybe T5. And GURPS Traveller was written before the game that powers it started to creep toward greater baseline assumed power levels. There are other games I've been moving back toward, too: Flashing Blades, Lace & Steel, CORPS, various D&D retroclones like Stars Without Number, ACKS, and Swords & Wizardry: White Box, or more variant versions like Dungeon Crawl Classics (which ranges widely in power across its 11 levels, but definitely hits the right notes for me before 5th level or so), not to mention actual pre-WotC editions of (A)D&D and its variants like The Arcanum. It doesn't mean simpler rules, either, since games like Hârnmaster are definitely in the low-power category.

Over on social media, I wrote, "I'm more interested in the sort of heroics that are performed by kids with six months of training in what end of the rifle a bullet comes out and then are thrown into the fray than in specialists who have constant elite training for years and then go on a tightly scheduled and planned mission once every couple of years. As it were." I think that sort of summarizes the issue. Special forces are interesting because their circumstances are extraordinary by design, but it's the common soldier in extraordinary circumstances who is more interesting than the circumstances. Frodo and Sam's, Merry's, or Pippin's stories were more interesting to me than Gandalf's or even Aragorn's. It was more remarkable for Eowyn to kill the Witch-King than it would have been if Galadriel had.

Now, sure, it won't be every low-powered game that has some kind of amazing result, but that's sort of the point. If every game is "remarkable", then they start to get lost in the forest of remark. See above about the "Natural 20" type of story, where any 5% chance becomes the one in a million longshot. That doesn't elevate the once-in-twenty, it devalues the one-in-a-million.

I don't expect that this will get rid of the high-power style of gaming, and I don't think that it should. I just want there to be a place for more human scales of game.

Monday, January 22, 2018

A Kickstarter To Check Out

It's not a RPG, but wargames are also pretty awesome in my opinion. Anyway, this one has crossed its funding threshold, so it's going to happen. Take a look at America Falling, a wargame about near future conflict in the Lower 48, as the political fault lines in the US break apart and the nation is thrown into a second Civil War. There are rules for cyberwarfare, turning units to your side, and so on. I'm a little bit sad that Cascadia* didn't make the list of insurgent factions, but Ecotopia will do, and you can probably work up a rules variant that includes other insurgents. Speaking of rules, the rules PDF can be downloaded (pdf link) for free to preview it.

The stretch goals include making versions of the game for Europe and Asia, so that looks pretty fun.

Anyway, looks like it could be a pretty good game. At $63 for the game and shipping, it's not too bad price-wise either. Since the MSRP will be $80, it's a very good deal.

*I am aware of at least two different Cascadias, actually. The first and largest is a loose coalition of people who think that the Pacific Northwest can go it alone and probably should, especially if the rest of the country breaks apart. They're pretty interested in becoming a Canadian province in that event and have developed optimistic, if unlikely, processes for doing so. The second is identitarian and believes that the PNW should be a "white" homeland. From what I've seen, their plan for this, if you can call it a "plan", is stockpiling guns.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

I Really Need To Be In The Habit Of Writing

Well, as has been the case for a couple of years, I didn't really post a lot last year. I'm hoping to change that - which I've said before, so who knows how it'll turn out this time.

One good thing in my gaming life lately is that I've finally figured out some of the details of the sort-of retroclone of MegaTraveller I want to do. Cepheus Engine seems like the perfect place to start, since it doesn't have any of the weird and confusing restrictions that are in the MgT SRD. It should be easy enough to redefine difficulties to fit the MT ones (separated by 4 points instead of 2 as in the CE version), and then going back to the original version for things like aging, encounters, and so on. A major change to the task system I want to make is to drop tasks one category. That is, instead of a Routine task succeeding on a 7+ and a Difficult one on 11+, the Routine task will succeed on 3+ and the Difficult one on 7+. This is to compensate for the assumption that the Digest Group people had that a character would typically have a DM of +4. It allows me to get back to Traveller-style assumptions about skill levels. With the added emphasis on level-0 skills in MT, that makes the increase of difficulty by one category for lacking the skill back into a meaningful thing. Another change will be to make exceptional results happen at a margin of 4 points instead of 2, but that's probably not meaningful to the casual reader. Damage results in combat will remain the same, though.

Notice how I called it a "sort-of" retroclone. That's because I've decided that I want to make some more radical changes too. For one, I'll be getting rid of the "hit points" system that is common to Traveller, and replacing it with an "injury" model of wounds. That is, when you get hit, there will be a mostly descriptive result that applies to your character until it heals. For example, "moderate bleeding slash to right arm", which consists of the following elements: moderate, bleeding, slash, and right arm. "Moderate" indicates the severity, which influences how long it takes to heal, the kind of treatment required, and also determines how much that wound affects attempts to perform other actions. "Bleeding" means that the wound is causing blood loss (which is the one place where there will be a sort of hit points). "Slash" is mainly important for determining what sort of treatment would be required to help the healing process. "Right Arm", obviously, indicates which tasks are affected by the wound. There are a number of other elements that could end up in a wound description, too, and during healing it could become infected.

Another thing I want to do is write it as a fantasy game instead of an SF one. I've been intrigued by the idea ever since the Thieves' World boxed set included Traveller statistics for the characters of that setting.

A big change (some will think) that I want to make is to revise character creation. Characters will start at a young age and not go through a career lifepath. Instead, there will be a number of skill points that the player can spend to give starting skills. After that, the MT methods of improving skills will come into play during the game. I want to model a lot of that on Flashing Blades, actually.

Another change I want to include is a personality system derived from the ones in Pendragon, Fantasy Wargaming, and Lace & Steel. I feel like that is something that can improve the game experience in a fantasy setting, which is usually more intimately connected to character motivations than an SF one generally tends toward. Yes, that is an over-broad statement. I hope that people will find the personality system I write to be useful in their SF games too. Heck, I might end up writing a new version of this game that goes back to the SF setting.

Anyway, I've been working on that. This is my first post since July. Here's hoping that I can post some more.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Tasks In MegaTraveller And What Roleplaying Games Really Are

Yeah, this is the model I was trying to evoke, sort of.
I've had a number of articles sitting in draft form for a long time now, so I guess I'll just publish them, maybe polishing them up a little first (or finishing them, in some cases). I will note that, with this particular article, some of my ideas have changed a bit. Mostly in reaction to the excellent "Classic Traveller: Out of the Box" series, and especially this article and its sequel, I am less certain that the "task chain" idea is necessarily the best idea, though I do still think that it was a useful innovation (and it may still be the best idea for the way I want to play - this is something that I am still working through in my head, so don't take my current indecision as a final attitude). Even more, though, I am questioning the baseline assumptions of MegaTraveller in regard to assumed skill and other asset levels. According to some designer's notes in Challenge magazine and elsewhere, the DGP crew were assuming a base skill + attributes and other bonuses of +4 for a competent character. Any further development along the MegaTraveller line of design, such as I am working on, is going to have to tackle that assumption and assess it in practice. To a great extent, I would like to get back to the simpler characters of classic Traveller, but with the better systems support (such as the expanded variety of "task chains" I discuss in this article) found in MegaTraveller - but this is now digressing in some ways from the point of the article I had written here. So, without further ado, let's get on with it, shall we?


These seem like two different topics, but I am really using the one as a way to talk about the other. I am increasingly fond (even beyond my original preferences for the edition) of the ways that MegaTraveller chose to do things, even as I am not always fond of the particular setting decisions made or the failures of the game's production. The edition earned its nickname of "MegaErrata", with the current consolidated errata for the edition weighing in at 69 pages, a book in itself.

One of the useful formalizations that MegaTraveller brought to the game was the "task", a unified format for describing methods of resolving actions in the game. Tasks were broken down by difficulty, usually one or two assets that promoted success, and various complications and risks inherent to the task, along with the amount of time that attempting the task takes. Along with this, the game included formal rules for retrying failed tasks, and this was where the Jack of all Trades skill was given its moment to shine, since characters would have to come up with a new approach to failed tasks (so that they aren't doing the same thing and expecting different results), and the skill gave characters a leg up on that as a way of modeling the flexibility and broad knowledge of such a Renaissance person. Helpfully, the game also included a realistic assessment of the benefits of having computer assistance with tasks, the effects of working quickly or cautiously, and so on. It's an elegant system that has many deep implications regarding the nature of the game, and even provides insight into the nature of roleplaying games generally.

One of those implications was never explicitly spelled out, to my knowledge. Tasks were sometimes presented in what might be called a "task chain". These are the flowcharts and stepped procedures that the game used to break down complex actions into discrete tasks that would be checked in order, and that could be varied to provide the players' characters the highest benefit. It's that last element that makes the task chain really useful in terms of playing a roleplaying game.

In a sense, a roleplaying game can be thought of as a random event generator, with the events generated being used to drive the players to make choices that, combined together, outline the events of the game that are constructed into a story. In the earliest games, the random events were of two main sorts: encounters and conflict resolution. This is fine, but leaves an emphasis on combat as being the main source of events due to complications. Some games choose what we might call "diegetic" (referring to the film distinction between diegetic sounds that originate from elements within the story, such as music playing on a radio, and non-diegetic sounds that are used to help illustrate the story, such as the score) considerations as the primary source of events, while others look to "narrative" considerations of pacing, action, and so on. There are also "game rule" considerations, which are those that relate to the game rules specifically, as distinct from the diegetic and narrative considerations, such as the tracking of abstract "hit points" and similar elements. These last typically intersect with the first two considerations (such as when hit points are understood as a marker of the narrative importance of the character, or when they are used to represent the physical toughness of the character).

MegaTraveller decided to expand resolution to provide potential event complications from various failure points in normal activities, and provide tools for the Referee to easily and quickly outline unusual activities. Combat is the main task chain that most players are familiar with, and is usually one of the more detailed elements of any given set of roleplaying rules. It consists of a set of tasks that can be chained together according to player choices which affect game state variables (character and equipment damage, resource expenditure, and so on). MegaTraveller further outlined a number of other task chains, though mostly in third-party materials. Digest Group provided the most of these, from medical procedures (in a series of articles in Travellers' Digest) to exploration (in World Builder's Handbook), all the way to various starship operations (in Starship Operator's Manual, Vol. 1). The Keith Brothers expanded on some starship operations related to starports in a pair of articles in Far and Away magazine. In each of these, the procedure is broken down into discrete steps, each step presented as a task. The steps might rely on different assets to promote success than other steps, which is how complex activities requiring multiple assets were best modeled, rather than incorporating all of the assets into a single task roll. Frequently, the players are also given choices as to the specific order of some steps, skipping steps to cut corners, and other methods of modifying the details to achieve the precise levels of risk and reward related to the task chain that they are willing to take on. Failure at any given point in the task chain has defined effects that introduce complications into the game with which the players will need to deal. Task chains also include the random encounter tables and similar normal event generators, as in the starship task chains where certain steps include checks to see if pirates or customs inspectors show up. In a broad sense, a campaign can be understood as one long, complex, and somewhat freeform task chain (in which case, the "campaign frame" I've discussed elsewhere can be understood as the specific task chain being used) into which a variety of other task chains are fitted.

Those complications generally take up some amount of resources, whether that is time, equipment, medical treatment, money, ammunition, or whatever. Each complication introduces an effect into the ongoing campaign and alters the precise trajectory that the characters take as a result.

What players need in order to feel like they are playing a roleplaying game rather than just rolling dice is the ability to make choices that affect the outcome of activities. This is incorporated into the task chain by allowing the specific order of events to be altered with appropriate consequences, the configuration and nature of risks to be determined (such as protecting an injured character behind a defensive line of healthy characters, adding to the risk of the latter while minimizing the risk to the former, performing a task hastily, saving time but risking failure, or the like), determining the allocation of various resources, and so on. In addition, the players can introduce a particular task chain by attempting to resolve a situation using a given method. Interacting with a person encountered might involve an interpersonal task chain, a combat task chain, or some other sequence, and the specific choice of which to use and the results that come from it will have an impact on the subsequent events in the campaign.

Because task chains can introduce a number of story elements autonomously, without significant Referee input, they are a very useful tool. They allow the Referee to concentrate on higher-level aspects of the setting, such as ongoing plots by recurring NPCs, setting events, and domain-level activities, while still keeping the players' characters grounded in the specific events that affect them. The Referee has a number of predefined task chains related to common activities (approaching and leaving a system, combat, medical care, trade- and commerce-related activities, wilderness travel and exploration, and so on) and only has to worry about unusual activities (changes to encounter tables due to setting events such as a coup d'état in the area, for instance).

This concept of task chains provides an alternative or complement to the common concept of breaking a roleplaying session into "scenes", modeled on traditional fiction. Certainly, MegaTraveller made use of that concept of scenes as well, with the system of "nuggets" for presenting adventures as a series of scenes or scene clusters that flowed into following events depending on how the nugget was resolved. Nuggets were never formally incorporated into the game, though, and were mainly a way to think about the structure of scenarios. In practice, the nugget method pushed scenario designers toward linear, or "railroad", adventure styles, so they seem like a net liability.

Combined with the system of various NPC types and other encounter rolls found in the basic game flow, task chains help define an approach to gaming that enhances the open nature of a roleplaying/adventure game.


That was the article I'd previously written. I want to add that my idea of "task chains" is not limited to what we might conventionally think of as "tasks" in the MegaTraveller sense. An item like rolling for random encounters or events is part of a task chain, in the sense I am using it here, as are other events and items that aren't under player character influence. The point is that it is a resolution system that is a sub-game of the whole game being played. Task chains can consist of other task chains, such as the "main loop", as it were, of the basic game flow I mention and link above being an overall task chain, which can be composed of subroutines (again, as it were) of combat, finding cargo, landing a spacecraft, or whatever. I think that computer programmers will probably see what I am going for here pretty quickly, and others might be able to relate it to the general structure of a computer program as well. That said, it would be a computer program written in pseudocode, with the Referee and players being generally able to parse even the most abstracted "commands" in the loop, and to break them down into further detail as the situation warrants.

Monday, February 13, 2017

An Update - Still Alive!

Looking around, I couldn't find where this comes
from. I like it, but if the owner wants me to
take it down, just let me know.
Wow, has it really been nearly a year? Last year wasn't much fun for me. Whatever, on to the post.

I'm not quite ready to be back fully yet, but I am around. I'm occasionally posting on the Traveller groups on G+, some stuff on Facebook, and occasional other groups. I do intend to return to the blog.

I'm still working on a MegaTraveller retroclone, based on the Mongoose OGL and incorporating elements of other editions. After discussions online and thinking about it, I want to really get back to the sandbox tools of CT LBB77, but with the rules influenced by some of the MT developments. One thing that I've learned about spaceships is that reaction drives are subject to the square-cube law, since thrust increases by the square while mass increases by the cube, speaking roughly. Building that into the ship design sequence should push designs toward smaller ships. I've been thinking about some other things, too.

I'm pretty certain that I am going to continue writing up the project I gave the working title "Flanaess Sector" as an AD&D 1E/OSRIC product. I'll import some of the alternatives to Illithids and other Product Identity races from sources like Adventures Dark and Deep, but otherwise it's mainly writing up tech items, a spaceship construction and combat system, and star system details. I am also trying to decide if it should be more science fantasy like Star Wars, Warhammer 40K, or White Star, or harder SF on the order of Traveller or even Orion's Arm. Maybe somewhere in the middle.

For fantasy gaming, I have changed my default setting a bit to include ideas from a guy named Scott, who was known for his settings such as the World of Thool but has since vanished from the internet as far as I can tell. He worked for a bit on a setting he called "Mandragora: The Mandrake March". It was to be based on Andrew Lang's Color Fairy Books (The Blue Fairy Book, The Red Fairy Book, and so on), taking elements from the stories and placing them into an otherwise normal D&D-type game. I want to do that, except that I'll include one area which is based on those (removing the Arabian and Chinese ones), an area similarly based on Irish, Welsh, and Breton fairy stories plus some Arthuriana, and an area based on the Arabian Nights Entertainments (plus the other stories traditionally associated with them, such as Sindbad, 'Ala ad-Din, and 'Ali Baba, and a similar manuscript called "Tales of the Marvelous and News of the Strange"). I'll probably have a land further to the East which is based on Chinese fairy tales (and an island nation drawing on Japanese fairy stories), but that's not the default starting area so I won't bother with it until needed. Some of the setting elements that I had originally developed will remain, such as the dragon-riding peoples of the Northern dales, the bull-riding nomad barbarians, the Southern cities of the sorcerer-kings, the iron-age Aztec island kingdom across the ocean to the West, the pirate princes in a "Pirates of the Caribbean" mode, and the fantasy Egypt-like river kingdom.

I've still been working off and on toward a fantasy setting which draws inspiration from the Wild West instead of Medieval Europe. I've been playing around with ways to approach the rather subtle magic I want, and GURPS remains the best source to do those things. I have considered changing the Swords & Wizardry: White Box rules, especially the spell list, to handle the setting. It certainly helps that it is available in .rtf format to make building a rule set possible. I might put it together as a Lulu project, if I go that way. New classes (Gunslinger! Snake Oil Salesman/Mountebank! Cunning Folk! Preacher! probably more!), new spell list, and so on, all in support of the setting assumptions. The setting itself is also slow going, since I want to create certain effects but I also don't want to be too close to actual history. Plus, I'm trying to figure the best way to have a Wild West with less Eastern Cities, and still waffling on the matter of trains (trains are a major element of Western stories, but they also bring Civilization far too quickly). I also really love pirates, and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise comes close to overlapping with the Wild West - maybe they'll be in there somewhere, like a fantastic New Orleans. I haven't come to terms with the racial politics of the time relative to the setting either, so I am not sure how I want to handle the matters of Native Americans, Africans, and Chinese laborers.

Part of the reason that I haven't completed any of these things is that I still don't have a group to play them with. I still prefer face-to-face gaming, but my attempts to reconnect with the people I gamed with when I lived in this city years ago are running into the problem that a lot of people aren't really willing to change their lives to fit the time for gaming. Oh, I'm probably overstating matters. I'm just frustrated about still not being able to get a group together after such a long, long time. It almost makes me willing to spend time learning how to use Roll20.

How are you doing?

Sunday, March 27, 2016

More Thoughts On Megatraveller And Such

The late John Berkey did some
cool spaceships
Yeah, I've been quiet here for a bit. Still dealing with some personal issues, but at least I've had some time to think about gaming again. Time to post something, so that you all can remember that I'm here!

I really love talking with the guys over at the G+ Classic Traveller group. They've given me a lot of things to think about in regard to the game, and pointed out places where later Traveller has changed things. For instance, it's clear that in the original release of the game, known as "LBB77" because it was released in 1977 (as opposed to "LBB81" for the revised version in 1981 and "TTB" for the slight revision from that which was The Traveller Book), there was much more emphasis on the sandbox elements and less on any interstellar imperiums or whatever (though the latter was still understood to be present in the background). Examples that affect this included the randomly-placed "Jump routes" or "spacelanes" of LBB77 that became instead the Referee-placed "communications routes" of LBB81/TTB. Interestingly, the communications routes, despite requiring more thought and effort from the Referee, have less impact on the game because the Jump routes determine where a traveller can get regular passage or a crew can buy pre-made navigation tapes. This limits the locations that the player-characters can travel to until they can improve their situation (either by getting the Generate program to make their own navigation tapes or somehow convincing a non-player ship to transport them outside of the normal shipping lanes, probably for a higher fee). The communications routes don't have the same impact on the game at the table, though extra rules found in, for example, The Traveller Adventure and other sources can allow the communications routes to have some effect.

MegaTraveller also made an assumption early on that greatly affected the way that game plays relative to the original version. That assumption was that a character attempting to do something would have a fairly high skill rating, such that the supposed typical character would be gaining a +4 DM from skill and attribute bonuses. That doesn't track with the original game, in which any level of skill above zero meant that the character had professional-level training in that area. That could probably be remedied by dropping all task difficulties 4 points, so that a Routine task is 3+, a Difficult one 7+, and so on (it would then be appropriate to add a difficulty level of Staggering between Formidable and Impossible, as Marc Miller's Traveller did). That could also mean that an average attribute of 7 could be re-centered on 0 instead of +1. Lacking a skill entirely would still increase the difficulty one level. In such a case, a Simple task would succeed without a roll (or perhaps require a roll if the total of all DMs is -4 or more, trying to get a total of -1 or higher), but could be increased to Routine or higher difficulty as usual for lack of skill or whatever. This change would also allow the character creation system to be scaled back to the original game's parameters, so that no "Special Duty" roll would exist to give even more skills.

On that topic, one of the benefits of being a Scout in the original game was the high incidence of Jack of all Trades skill. While that skill is more clearly defined in MegaTraveller (and allows higher levels of the skill to have meaning), I think that it should be returned to its original place of value, perhaps by adding (in addition to the "free retries" ability) the ability to offset the penalty for lacking skill. Probably give a +1 to unskilled use (only) for every 2 full points of Jack of all Trades skill, to a maximum of +4 (requiring skill-8, so pretty unlikely anyway). Again, that bonus would be in addition to the normal MegaTraveller benefit of being allowed one free retry of a failed task per Jack of all Trades skill level (taking the normal amount of time).

Another area to consider is space combat. The system in MegaTraveller is, simply, horrible. It's a kludge of the Book 5: High Guard system (originally intended for large ship actions) mixed with elements designed to make it more useful for small ships, and it was not developed well enough for actual use. That is to say, it can be used, but seems ultimately unsatisfying for either small or large actions. In the end, I think that I'd like to draw it back and make it more like the Book 2: Starships system or Mayday, or perhaps the range band system in Starter Traveller (or project it ahead somewhat and make it more like Battle Rider, which has always seemed to me like the nearly-ideal set of Traveller starship combat rules).

Which brings up some issues of design. MegaTraveller draws on the expanded weapon types available in High Guard. I'd like to drop at least some of those, such as meson weapons and associated technology. It might also be useful to include a weapon design system, such as that found in Traveller: The New Era (TNE) or Marc Miller's Traveller (T4). This is especially true for missiles, which could do with taking some ideas from Special Supplement 3: Missiles in Traveller. The design system in MegaTraveller moves away from the LBB/TTB in a significant way, though, by falling clearly on the other side of the so-called "small ship Traveller/big ship Traveller" line. When players are tooling around in 2700m³ ships, but the military have 270,000m³ light cruisers, there is an overwhelming power differential that deeply affects the feel of the game. This also doesn't match the historical eras which the game tries to emulate. The age of sail saw merchant ships that were no smaller than their military counterparts, while WW1/2 era tramp steamers were roughly the same size as military cruisers. For example, the OCEAN class steamer was about 10,000 tons displacement, while the Pennsylvania-class cruiser of the pre-war era was around 15,000 tons fully loaded and the Cincinnati-class cruiser was less than 3500 tons! To be fair, the latter were slated to be reclassified as Patrol Gunboats if they hadn't been decommissioned. I'm still not sure how to address that issue. Whatever happens, though, it will mean some significant changes to the design system. It also means that I will have to consider how to handle ship benefits from character creation, plus mortgages and other financial tools related to running the tramp merchant game. GURPS Traveller: Far Trader would certainly be of help there.

Now for the more morose thoughts in this regard. I've been considering ways to write all this up, including the setting I have worked out, and sell it, but the specific details of Traveller's current licensing scheme seem to preclude it. Weird restrictions in the Mongoose OGL (you can't include the method to roll up characteristics, for example, which would prevent me from presenting the "genetic dice" necessary for the dynastic game that I eventually want to write up) and behavior that seems from my perspective to be somewhat erratic on the part of the original designer (I've heard that people have been billed for asking him questions - which rumor I can't check because I couldn't afford any such potential billing to find out if it's true or not!) combine to make it a minefield I'd rather not navigate, at least not alone. Another option would be to present the setting I have in mind through another system, but all of the other systems that seem even remotely suitable to my preferences are based on D&D, with character classes and such. Stars Without Number, White Star, Starships & Spacemen (either edition), and so on all seem to rely on elements that don't suit my setting and the aesthetic preferences related to it. I've been thinking that it might be time to dust off my old idea of retooling Flashing Blades for science fiction adventure. That might even be historically appropriate, since Flashing Blades drew pretty heavily on En Garde, GDW's first RPG. One possible problem with this idea is that Flashing Blades's system is more suited to swashbuckling action/adventure than the more gritty tone that infuses most of Traveller's various incarnations. If that becomes too much of a problem for me, I could always build it using one of the open-rule versions of the d% system found in RuneQuest, I suppose.

But I really wish that I could just use a properly-developed MegaTraveller as my basis.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Monday, December 28, 2015

Monday, December 21, 2015

Please Stand By

Due to personal issues, I haven't been thinking about gaming much, and I didn't finish my NaNoWriMo challenge. Turns out I had some things to deal with that came roaring out in November, and I am still dealing with the fallout. I will resume blogging on gaming when I can.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Thoughts On MegaTraveller

Man, I love this book.
I've been thinking a lot about MegaTraveller lately. I want to run a game for a group of people sitting down at a table, and I want it to be in my own setting. To that end, I've been looking at some of the DGP materials, which seem to add a lot of very useful ideas for running a game. I also want to go back to classic Traveller for those aspects which I feel were altered for the worse in MegaTraveller.

One thing that I want to play around with is character creation. At the moment, I am pretty well set on using variations of the basic generation system, avoiding the "advanced" systems entirely. I'm a little concerned, after analysis, about the changes to the skill charts from CT to MT, but on the whole I think that I'll just go with what is there. That said, I want to revise the careers somewhat to conform better to my setting. For example, I'm considering renaming the Navy as the Spacy, reserving "Navy" for sailors, and adding a Star Patrol as a sort of combination "Coast Guard" and law enforcement service. For simplicity at the start, I will limit players to being from the Terran Federation. I can open up the other human polities later on, if it comes to that. Aliens are… alien. The setting plays with some nonhuman sorts of intelligence, but those creatures have to be treated as animals from the players' perspective. Things like Arrakis sandworms, Chamax colonies, Reticulan parasites, Chtorran ecologies (maybe), or the Solaris entity are pretty much as close as my aliens get to human intelligence and communication - which is to say, not very. Well, there are a couple of exceptions, but they remain not very human-like at all. Hivers are positively human by my setting's standards. Nunclees and Providers (both found in T4's Aliens Archive) are about as close as Traveller aliens to date come to those of my setting. Rather than talking about intelligence, I talk about "overwhelming species" that radically reshape their environments to suit themselves, with human-style intelligence being just one example.

More importantly than those sorts of setting-specific details, I want to retain the Survival roll as a pressure away from longer service, but also I want to alleviate the absolute nature of it. For that, I see in Travellers' Digest issue 13 that there is a possible system to use. Instead of automatically killing the character, it causes a roll on the Mishap table, with the result indicating damage to the character. I don't like the low odds of serious damage using the system as given, though, so I will probably double the dice of damage (so it goes from 2D to 8D instead of 1D to 4D). That also gives the possibility of a character starting the game with prosthetic limbs, eyes, or whatever, which adds flavor. I'll probably also rule that a "flesh wound" result (and maybe even a "moderate wound") won't trigger an automatic mustering out. This changes the Survival roll to a "Mishap" check instead, which is fine.

There is a hit location chart in the article in that issue (so that a determination about which body part is affected can be made). I am considering adding that into the combat system directly, so that each hit has a hit location associated. That would also require applying wound dice immediately instead of at the end of combat, so maybe I'll skip that after all. One of the good things about MT combat is that it is sped up by saving the rolls for characteristic damage until after combat ends, and I am not really sure I want to lose that.

I'm definitely going to take the idea of "genetic dice" from T4/5, so that players record the rolls on each of their dice for the first four characteristics. That may have no impact on the game, but you never know. For characters born when their parents' genetic dice are known, roll 2d10 instead of 2d6, with a 1-6 result being read as the number, a 7 or 8 taking the first or second of the paternal genetic dice, and a 9 or 10 taking the respective maternal genetic die. That means that a character has a 40% chance on each die of taking one of the genetic dice, and a 60% chance of taking some previous generation's dice. That pushes the character toward the dice that their parents had (each die has a 50%-80%* chance of matching one of the parents' genetic dice, but can still range from 1 to 6).

I am tempted to adapt the Career/Life Events idea from the Mongoose edition of Traveller, but I might just make a "Connections" roll each term, with success adding a Contact and exceptional failure adding an Enemy.

I am definitely replacing each receipt of "Ship" (except Scout/Courier or Lab Ship) with MCr8.25 toward ship payments (including down payments). This means that a character can either make a down payment on a Far Trader or the down payment plus some payments on a Free Trader. In addition, it will be possible for characters to take a used ship instead, using more of their ship sum toward payments on the ship. Any left over after the down payment must be spent toward ship payments if possible (Cr171,125 for each payment for a Far Trader, Cr153,812.5 each for a Free Trader), with whatever remainder going into the ship's account. Belters get MCr5.5 each receipt instead, but all other careers use the MCr 8.25 amount - they'd better hope for more than one if they want the ship characteristic of their profession, though a Noble can make the down payment on a Yacht with just one receipt and an extra Cr467,000 (not that there are Nobles as such in the Terran Federation). Scientists are an exception: they get use of a lab ship for free, but it is owned by their patron (University or whatever) and loaned under similar terms as the Scout/Courier. This means that a character with two receipts of "Ship" could even start with a Subsidized Merchant (down payment: MCr13.5, monthly payment Cr281,250; that means that a Merchant character with two receipts of "Ship" would be able to make the down payment, their first 10 monthly payments, and have Cr187,500 in the ship's account, or they could have a Far Trader, make the down payment, 48 monthly payments, and have Cr72,000 left in the ship's account, or with a Free Trader they could make the down payment, 59 monthly payments, and have Cr40,062.5 in the ship's account). This does mean that it is possible for a character who receives "Ship" once to choose between the more lucrative but shorter-ranged Type A or the less profitable but longer-legged Type A2.

The one thing that I can think of offhand that I will go back entirely to the CT method is the normal encounter system. The MT version is changed in ways that aren't helpful.

Anyway, I haven't been able to give complete attention to these thoughts, as I am still working away at NaNoWriMo (though I'm a little behind at the moment, I can still catch up pretty easily). I'll come back to this later.

*If the parents' genetic dice are 3, 4, 5, and 6, then there is an 80% chance that the result will be 3, 4, 5, or 6 - a 20% chance of each result separately - and a 20% chance that it will be 5 or 6, 10% for each one. If all four of the parents' genetic dice are 6, then there is a 50% chance that the result for that die will be 6 and a 50% chance that it will be 1 through 5.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Just An Update

I'm participating in NaNoWriMo this year, trying to write 100,000 words about a future without limitless oil, after the long, slow, punctuated collapse of the American Empire and the rise of a whole raft of new nations in the rubble of the postindustrial future. The point of this is, of course, to note that you're not going to be hearing much from me here on the blog this month. You should be able to keep track of my progress on the NaNoWriMo widget over to the side, if you care. I need to make around 3333 words each day on average to stay on track. I started off well enough, writing 3480 words on my first day. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Alternate Traveller Campaign Frames: Minor Campaign Frames From Classic Traveller

Tana Salm from Perry Rhodan,
just because. From here, which gives
the copyright information.
We've already covered the three or four main campaign frames that were developed in classic Traveller, along with a few from later editions, but there were a couple of others that were sketched out in various publications during the classic Traveller era. None of them was particularly well-detailed, but enough was given in most cases to allow an enterprising Referee to develop them into a campaign.

First was the Belter campaign. This was presented in an early issue of the Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society (JTAS) magazine, and reprinted in the first volume of the "Best of" collection. This is the campaign frame in which players prospect in an asteroid belt, looking for a big strike that will make them rich. The frame is given as a flowchart involving bureaucracy (to get permits and such) and actual prospecting in the belt. The primary weakness of the frame is that there are few meaningful decisions that the players can make, and so it quickly becomes an exercise in dice rolling and the occasional wild complication thrown in by the Referee. There is a reason that not many people play this one for very long. It can be an interesting diversion from more typical Traveller activities for a time, though. This frame was given more support by the inclusion of a Belter career with Prospecting skill in Supplement 4: Citizens of the Imperium, but the career was not a very viable one (it had a worse survival rate than Scouts).

A number of the careers in Supplement 4 brought an implied campaign frame along with them.

The existence of Doctors implied the possibility of a "Sector General" style campaign, in which the players would be the staff of a hospital ship or station. This was never explored in CT, though. MegaTraveller saw the introduction of detailed task chains related to medical treatment for injury, disease, and radiation, not to mention mental health, which along with the interpersonal tasks in the Referee's Manual comprise the main resources necessary for such a campaign frame. There was a hospital ship presented in a third-party supplement, but that was more or less it until Library Bob over at Ancient Faith in the Far Future decided to resuscitate the idea recently with his Mercy Ships campaign frame, providing the necessary detail for such a campaign.

Pirates of the Space variety, of course, are a standard of SF going back to the early days in the pulps. The subject is hotly debated, but Traveller gave a career for pirates and so implied that they must exist in some fashion in the Imperium setting at least. An article in JTAS described the necessary conditions for piracy and suggested some possible pirate bases in the Spinward Marches, but the subject was quietly dropped (other than the paramilitary Corsairs of the Vargr). Later on, some people raised objections based on physics and thermodynamics (it's impossible to sneak up on someone in space is the basic thrust of the argument), but others, such as Rob Garitta at Twilight of the GM, have returned to the subject in the hopes of salvaging it. In any case, the Space Pirate campaign frame wouldn't be that dissimilar to the default game, which is somewhat amusing in itself.

Nobles will be discussed elsewhere because the main successful presentations of a nobility-based campaign are found in other editions of Traveller than the classic one. Suffice it to say that CT provided little support for the idea of a Noble campaign frame other than the existence of the titles and the career in Supplement 4. A couple of magazine articles attempted to address the issue with limited success, notably "Robe & Blaster: Upgrading Aristocracy in Traveller" in White Dwarf magazine issue 22 and "Relief for Traveller Nobility" in Dragon magazine issue 73. Those articles mainly gave special benefits to noble characters, rather than pursuing an entire campaign frame dedicated to them. Library Bob at Ancient Faith in the Far Future also provided an interesting expansion when he discussed generating noble houses, then followed it up with some more articles on nobility in Traveller, which he ultimately linked in this article. David Billinghurst provided this expansion to Traveller nobility at Brett Kruger's Reavers' Deep site (and originally at his own blog, Waystar High Port, ultimately collecting a couple of articles together here), based on several sources, and others have presented similar articles. The most complete exploration of the issues involved with such a campaign frame is found elsewhere, however, and I will return to that in a future article.

The existence of the Hunter career in Supplement 4 seems to indicate a possible campaign frame of "Big Game Hunter", either as expeditions with guns to take down alien animals by killing them or capturing them, or with recording devices. This wasn't pursued in any official materials much at all, but the "Environment" series from Gamelords, Ltd., written by the Keith brothers, began to cover many of the issues that would be important to such a campaign frame. Some of the adventures that the Keiths wrote to support that series also supported variations of the idea. Well, OK, it was just Ascent to Anekthor, which detailed a mountain-climbing expedition with the players as expedition members under a noble patron. That pretty much outlines the way that such a campaign might work, making it a variation of the basic campaign frame with a special emphasis on patrons looking for an expedition guide. In fact, any number of specialty campaigns can be produced by taking that idea and running with it. Itinerant engineers might focus on patrons that are looking for repairs and maintenance in adventurous situations, for example. The Referee simply needs to ensure that any patrons encountered are aware of the specific qualities, or at least reputations for those qualities, of the players' characters.

Many other campaign frames that can be developed for Traveller are like that last, focusing the nature of any patrons encountered so that their required tasks are related to the campaign intended. This could apply to just about any profession, from bounty hunters and skip tracers (though that is a frame that really deserves its own approach) to salvage crews to private detectives to paranormal investigators*, and whatever else besides. These aren't major changes to the game, unlike some of the other campaign frames (even some of the other minor frames mentioned in this article). That underlines the flexibility of the basic Traveller campaign frame, while the other frames out there show off the flexibility of the game as a whole.


*While not seeming to be a part of a SF setting, I don't see why a universe that includes psionics wouldn't have a reason for this sort of thing. In addition to legitimate psionic and psionic-related activities, there's every opening for fraud as well, as the article "Just Like Magic" from Challenge magazine issue 46 outlined.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Alternate Traveller Campaign Frames: Strange New Worlds

I've discussed a couple of alternate campaign frames previously, covering the Mercenary campaign along with the Squadron and Active Duty campaign frames. Though the last was only presented in terms of Navy games (and so incorporating Marines by default), it would have been easily converted for use with other active duty military games involving the Army. I'm going to start skipping around, because the other campaign frames from the classic Traveller era are either minor and not well detailed, or ones that I am not very familiar with at this time (I will be discussing the frame implied in The Traveller Adventure later on, which is related to the "default" Traveller campaign frame that I've also described previously, but includes some new concepts that are very important).

Unfortunately, the classic Traveller expansion for the Scout service, Book 6 Scouts, did not incorporate a specific campaign framework. It included only a set of tools for the Referee to detail whole systems instead of the main worlds that were rolled up in the basic world generation system along with an expanded character generation system for Scout characters that followed on the same lines as the military services presented in the previous two books. Paranoia Press, who presented an expanded Scouts character generation system a little earlier in their supplement Scouts and Assassins, also did not expand on the sorts of activities that a Scout might perform as part of actual play. The supplements for MegaTraveller titled Grand Survey, Grand Census, and World Builder's Handbook started to cover the sorts of things a Scout might do, but as I have never actually seen the first two of those supplements I can't comment on them. World Builder's Handbook did include some very useful tasks related to surveying a world, but didn't go much further toward detailing a campaign frame related to exploration - though an enterprising and interested Referee could easily turn the notes presented into such a campaign. Instead of discussing those, then, I will skip ahead to the two editions of Traveller that presented Scout campaign frames at least reasonably well.

EDIT: Re-reading some of the World Builder's Handbook, I see that it includes more detail toward an exploration and contact game than I remembered. I may return to that supplement later.

First, Traveller: The New Era got in on the action. In its extensive rewrite and reimagining of the MegaTraveller supplement called World Builder's Handbook, titled World Tamer's Handbook, GDW presented detailed descriptions of the tasks necessary to survey a new world in the wilds ravaged by Virus. Those tasks were generic, of course, and so not limited to the New Era setting. Highly detailed looks at the environment of a world were presented, along with methods for generating them beforehand. Information down to the amount of extractable wind and hydro energy, soil fertility, and so on in a 10km hex was presented in a usable and efficient manner. Scouts could go in, find out the details of a world, and return to provide the results of their survey to whatever home base they served.

The supplement didn't stop there, though. The other side of the Scout coin in SF is colonization, and World Tamer's Handbook presented a campaign frame of colonists, a first in SF gaming generally, and for Traveller specifically. A model was provided that allowed players to determine the economic output of their colony based on decisions they made about allocating resources both infrastructure- and human-related, which they could then direct toward various improvements and maintenance - a true domain-level game at last. This also saw the return of the sandbox format for a Traveller campaign, which had largely dropped by the wayside during the late Traveller and most of the MegaTraveller eras in favor of the then-popular story-based format. In addition to whatever the Referee chose to throw at them to further the story, colonial administrators (the PCs, the rules assume) would experience various random events that provided story hooks related to administering a group of people in a colony. Sadly, this wasn't well implemented, as the events mostly were defined in terms of a single task roll to resolve them ("Crime Wave, succeed in a Difficult Investigation roll" or suffer some penalty, for example). Nonetheless, this was a great idea, but didn't see much support from the community of players, something that can really be said about most of Traveller: The New Era, unfortunately. Some general notes toward scaling the colonial model up to cover entire world governments were included, but the system becomes unwieldy at the higher end. This would lead to a different system for world-spanning empires later on, and I will probably discuss that campaign frame next time.

When Steve Jackson Games picked up a license to produce a Traveller edition using their GURPS rules, one of the supplementary books they produced was GURPS Traveller: First In. First In gave the GT version of Scout activities, including, in addition to the expected detailed world generation system, a set of rules for surveying a system. As is the case with most of the GT materials, though, these tools were provided with no real guidance as to what to do with them. A decent GM could certainly take them and turn them into tools for adventurous games or even campaigns, of course, but no such framework was explicitly provided. In a nice turn, there were a number of optional rules included, ranging from minor to as radical for the Traveller game as incorporating 3D star mapping instead of the traditional parsec-wide-hex based 2D sector/subsector system. The designer's notes for that supplement, available for free on the SJG site, give more detail still toward a game using 3D star maps, including discussion of possible changes to the Jump Drive and so on. I should add at this point that if you have any interest in the GURPS Traveller line at all, you should hurry up and get the PDFs, as SJG's license to sell that edition expires at the end of this year, and they will not be renewing it. After that point, they will not be selling GT materials, not even the PDFs.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Alternate Traveller Campaign Frames: High Guard

After the release of Book 4 Mercenary showed that there was a market for expanding on the careers of the original game, the next obvious direction to look was the Navy, those masters of the spaceways. Where Mercenary added more guns and other ironmongery, Book 5 High Guard added a new spaceship design sequence that could handle ships up to 200 times larger than the largest ships of the original spaceship design rules! To supplement those monstrously large spaceships, the supplement also included a new spaceship combat game that could handle larger numbers of spacecraft than the miniatures-based one from the original books.

Which was all fine and dandy until you realized that they forgot to include anything to actually do with those big spaceships and battle fleets. Unlike Mercenary, the authors forgot to include a campaign framework that made those spacecraft useful to anyone's game. So they sat down and did two things.

First, they rewrote the supplement. The first edition was kind of a mess, and the ships that came out of that design sequence weren't very interesting. Second, they released Adventure 5 Trillion Credit Squadron. TCS, as it quickly became known, was a radical departure at the time, presenting a campaign system with a rudimentary "domain" game that served to provide a reason for large fleets of giant spacecraft to fire weapons at each other. The players would play combination Admiral/Planetary Government and send ships at each other in a sort of roleplaying/wargame mashup. Except that there was a lot less of the roleplaying, a situation that would have to wait 16 years to be repaired, albeit imperfectly, but that is so different that it really represents a different campaign frame, and I will come back to it in a later installment.

In TCS, the game is changed to play in weeks, and each week allows six phases: Jumps, Communication and Intelligence, Battles, Changes of Control, Refueling, and Final Operations. I won't go into too much detail, but most of those phases are pretty self-explanatory. The Final Operations phase is the one in which campaign-level events occurred, such as ordering new ships, ship construction being completed, multi-week activities like being repaired, and so on. Planets would generate revenue based on the Traveller world statistics (UPP or Universal Planetary Profile), and the relative value of wealth from one world compared to the others based on technology level and the local starport. The campaign frame was more like a wargame than a roleplaying game, but that was OK.

Or, the Referee could just specify that a certain technology limit and certain other limits (minimum Jump capability, number of pilots available, and so on) applied, and let two players generate squadrons that just fought it out in one big battle (this method was also the basis of the Tournament Play method). TCS was pretty flexible.

Another way to use High Guard came up in one of the issues of Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society, in which a campaign frame of active-duty Navy and Marine personnel would engage in mission-based adventures. The article included a way of generating the pay scale for those services and gave some advice and basic adventure seeds (one piece of advice was to watch or read The Sand Pebbles for ideas of the sorts of trouble that Navy personnel can get up to on shore leave, which is pretty depressing advice really; it's a good book and movie, but not particularly a happy one). So, out of one supplement, two or so campaign frames ultimately came around. The Active-Duty campaign, of course, was a little more under Referee control than the basic game (or TCS), much like the Mercenary campaign framework, and shares similar advantages and disadvantages. It does point out that we are seeing the same forces that were present in the hobby as a whole at the time affecting perceptions of how to play Traveller. That would become a big problem with the next edition of the game, MegaTraveller. Many of the sandbox tools remained to be used, so that edition wasn't entirely lost to the "storyteller" style of gaming. In fact, as we shall see, several campaign frames that are very much sandbox oriented have yet to come about by the end of classic Traveller.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Character Improvement In MegaTraveller (And Jack Of All Trades)

After a great deal of criticism over the unorthodox character improvement system in classic Traveller, the design team for the revision, MegaTraveller, decided to include a system that was more like that used in other games, allowing a character to improve through using the skills rather than through an extended program of study and practice. It was still different enough from the improvement systems of other games that it was overlooked by many, but mainly that was due to the poor layout that was common to games of the time. It was placed in a counterintuitive point in the rules, and only took up three pages (plus a paragraph in the Referee's Manual, though that wasn't explicitly tied to the improvement system - which is another mistake of presentation in my opinion).

MegaTraveller decided to include a system not entirely unlike the RuneQuest system of improving skills and attributes. Each session of play, the Referee would award to each character an "Adventure Tally" or "AT" in a skill that saw significant use by the character during the session. Each skill could only have two ATs per one-year period, so each was marked with the date in standard Traveller Imperium date format, so for instance "AT-Stealth (023-1120)", to help keep track. At the beginning of each session (or at the end of the current one after ATs are handed out, it doesn't matter so long as it is kept consistent), the player could try to improve any skills with ATs. It requires a Task check of Formidable difficulty (so needing a base of 15+ on 2D), to which roll the player can add the Int modifier (+0 to +3, usually +1) and the number of ATs on the skill. As always, there is a limit of +8 on the roll, so the best chance of success is going to be a roll of 7+. A success would give the skill at level 0 if the character did not have it, or raise it one level if the character did have it at level 0 or greater already. When a successful roll to raise the skill happens, then the ATs for that skill are erased (but erasing ATs does not occur until the skill is raised, so there is no penalty for failure on this roll other than not gaining the skill) and the character can gain more ATs as normal.

Now, it is really difficult to use a skill that the character doesn't possess at a level of at least 0, because the difficulty of any such Tasks is increased by a level, or 4 points harder on the dice (from 7+ to 11+, for instance). There are two ways of gaining a temporary level 0 in a skill, though. First is by observation. Watching someone else performing a skill allows a character to make a Task check to gain a level-0 in the skill for one use. Also, it is possible to use computer programs to assist and gain a level-0 on the same temporary basis.

Attributes use a similar system of ATs, but the player must specify which single attribute they wish the character to be pursuing this session, and if that particular attribute sees significant use the Referee can award it an AT.

In addition, characters can search for and undergo formal training in a skill or attribute. This requires a Task check to find the training program, then a Determination Task to stay committed. Failing the Determination Task can result in wasting the time and money for the program, as the amount of time the Task takes is used to see how long before the character drops out of the program (and this can represent showing up but not applying oneself to the course of study)! Once formal training is completed, there is another Task to see if the skill or attribute is gained or improved. A typical course of study requires 200 hours, arranged as appropriate (so an intensive 5-week course of 40 hours of study per week or self-study at 5 hours per week for 40 weeks or whatever). Such programs normally cost around Cr10 per hour.

Social Standing is improved or lowered by paying more or less than normal for upkeep (normal upkeep cost is Cr250 × Soc per month), though increasing Soc is limited to level A (10), since noble status can't be gained by this method. Such levels of Social Standing need to be granted by Imperial authorities, I would imagine.

Jack of All Trades skill has always been a strange beast in different editions of Traveller. Classic Traveller was fairly obscure about how it should be used, though reading the rules seems to indicate that any level of Jack of All Trades allows the use of any other skill as if it were possessed at level 0, with no additional benefit to higher levels. Other editions of Traveller have allowed levels of Jack of All Trades to offset penalties for lacking skill (GURPS Traveller makes it into an advantage that adds to skills from their defaults, Mongoose Traveller adds to attempts to use skills that aren't possessed by the character, and so on), but MegaTraveller took a different tack. In that edition, it was possible to retry failed tasks that weren't instant (instant tasks are things like combat tasks and whatever that may take some time in an absolute sense, but not any significant amount). A normal failure (a failure by 1) allows a free retry, but an Exceptional Failure (failure by 2 or more) requires a Determination Task check. A failure on that Task increases the difficulty of the Task by one level, while a success allows a retry at the current difficulty. Retries, of course, take the normal amount of time. Jack of All Trades skill allowed the character a number of free retries of Exceptionally Failed Tasks equal to the level of the Jack of All Trades skill. This is "representing the character's resourcefulness", which seems like a really good way of modeling it.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Alternate Traveller Campaign Frames: Mercenary

I previously discussed the default assumed game in Traveller, in which the players maneuvered their characters to scramble for payoffs from patrons and sometimes following up tantalizing rumors. That wasn't the only way to play the game, though, and a few other options were explored through the various expansions and editions. I'll cover some of these in this occasional series, and who knows? Maybe I'll outline some others.

The first alternative game was in the very first supplemental release for Traveller, the ground military expansion Book 4 Mercenary. (It's possible that Supplement 1 1001 Characters preceded it since both were released in the same year, but I haven't been able to confirm which came out first and both came out the year before I played my first roleplaying/adventure game.) Mercenary provided an expanded character creation system, which is all well and good, but more importantly it introduced the idea that the players could be employee-soldiers in a mercenary company, fighting for pay where they were told to go by their superiors, hoping one day, perhaps, to become those superiors. It included a rudimentary mass combat system (requiring a great deal of work by the Referee, since it was nearly nonexistent), and it also included the patron-substitute of a Mercenary-based campaign, the Ticket. Tickets were descriptions of the mission for which the company was to be hired, including objectives, pay, and other details. Some of the patrons in 76 Patrons, in fact, are Tickets instead of people. A typical Ticket might have the players travel to a backwater planet on which the locals were gearing up to fight each other and train the troops of one side or another. No doubt, many Referees introduced all sorts of complications. This campaign didn't include the detailed structure of play found in the default game, but that is because its own structure was very simple and mission-based. Eventually, GDW released a mass combat, or rather skirmish-level, miniatures game that interfaced very well with the Mercenary campaign frame.

Mercenary-based games were rather unlike normal Traveller games. In the normal game, the players would have maximum freedom of movement and choice of which adventure threads to take up. In a Mercenary-based game, the players went where they were told. That would usually be by the Referee, at least at first. Later, one or more of the players might find themselves in charge of a mercenary group. In some cases, the Referee would take a player whose character had long military experience and put them in charge from the beginning. In the cases where one or more players were in charge, that player or those players would be able to pick from a selection of mercenary Tickets proposed by the Referee, giving them somewhat more flexibility.

The course of play was more flexible than the day-to-day scheduling of the standard game, too. Once a Ticket was accepted, the time to travel would be simply calculated and then assumed to go without incident (unless the Referee had something up their sleeve). From there, the situation would play out in a more freeform method, the Referee adjudicating the results of the plans proposed by the players. Depending on the Referee, this could be either narratively handled or structured as an ad hoc wargame, with maps to regulate movement and perhaps Striker to handle direct contact. Striker was designed with roleplaying in mind, in fact, being centered on "orders" and the time of transmission for those by various methods of communication (providing the real benefit of battlefield computers, as an aside), and using a simplified form of the Traveller combat system so that injuries to two dozen soldiers didn't need to be tracked closely, itself based on the system originally included in Azhanti High Lightning. That simplified system would ultimately be used in MegaTraveller after some modification.

After the Ticket was completed and the unit was paid, the Referee would have to work up some expenses (replacement ammo and supplies, for example), plus the troops needed to get paid, and then the unit would look for another mission. Repeat as necessary and as interest held.

The main disadvantage of this campaign frame is the fairly straight-ahead nature of it: the players are given a mission and must solve the mission to gain the reward. There is little room for the players' characters to have their own goals that they can pursue with as much dedication as the default campaign framework. It isn't quite a railroad, as the players are given much leeway to decide exactly how they intend to carry out their mission, but the goals are not their own. That said, since it is a game in which the quantifiable goal is the pursuit of money first and foremost, it is perfectly possible for the characters to become wealthy enough to be able to make their own plans, eventually. This framework is probably most useful to players who prefer the more modern ways of gaming, as a compromise between the sandbox and the "adventure path", but it should also appeal strongly to those with an interest in military SF.

Note that it was possible to mix the Mercenary campaign frame with the default one, but I don't know anyone who did that, and I am not sure if it would be as interesting as either frame separately. That said, a campaign that alternated between Tickets and the players' characters getting in undirected trouble (using the default encounter/patron system) while on leave between the Tickets might be quite interesting.

Another interesting thing about the Mercenary campaign structure is the fact that it may have the most flexibility, ironically, in terms of the flow of any particular session. While the standard game has a pretty fixed "flow" (find cargo/freight, find patrons/rumors, resolve patrons and random encounters, rinse and repeat with only occasional variation), a mercenary Ticket can take a large number of forms, from the Cadre Ticket in which the players train the native troops to the Assault Ticket in which they go in guns blazing, and any number of others that the Referee can dream up. Again, the expense is that the stories that arise inherently owe a lot more to the Referee and less to the players and their characters, but some groups may find this structure worth it.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

A Traveller Misconception And Describing The Structure Of Play

There's a lot about the original Traveller game to love (usually called Classic Traveller these days, and I will follow suit here; for the rest of this article, I will call it CT - and because it is the easiest to get now, being available in POD or electronic format from DriveThruRPG, I will use references from The Traveller Book). It's simple yet detailed, practical yet adventurous, short yet broad-ranging in scope. CT presented a default setting that was both science-fictional and familiar at once, walking a narrative line between "hard" SF and interstellar adventure. This article will cover two points: the misunderstanding that most people have about character improvement in CT and the basic structure of play in CT (which is dramatically different than that of more "story-oriented" gaming in recent years, but also somewhat different than RPGs of the D&D form of structure, which is most other RPGs). Here's a cut, since this ran long.