#RPGThursday – Not Encountering Traveller5

Tales to Astound has a long-running series on Traveller: Out of the Box. If you are a true Classic Traveller RPG fan and have not seen that site – FULL STOP! Go read it now then come back (or maybe not – his site is admittedly much better than mine).

Courtesy FFE.com

As much as I love Classic Traveller (or CT), I have stated before that the latest Marc Miller version of Traveller, Traveller5 (or T5) is also one of my guilty pleasures. I really like the “makers” in the system and how they all work together for world building. I also must admit that many of the critics of T5 are correct; the game is hard to play. I keep asking myself why.

 

To me, the Core Mechanic (nD6 < Characteristic + Skill +/- Mods) stands up well. Character Generation is no more difficult than any other version of Traveller. Combat (except Melee) works well and there are all those Makers! So why is it difficult?

One moment of clarity in my Traveller RPG journey came late last year when I revisited Marc Miller’s Traveller (or T4). In the introduction, Mr. Miller lays out his viewpoint of three different Traveller RPG players:

Casual Players: Anybody can play Traveller. The concepts are intuitive: travel, exploration, interaction, negotiation, combat, and all kinds of action. Individuals can role-play diverse characters or they can play themselves. Casual players can be so casual that they know nothing about the game system at all.

Detailed Role-Players: Traveller provides dedicated gamers the opportunity to role-play complex characters with strong motivations and intricate backgrounds. The Traveller system can be as informal or rich as the participants want.

System Engineers: The Traveller system presents referees the materials necessary to explore [the] Traveller universe in detail. Aspects such as starship design, world generation, vehicle descriptions, trade and commerce, animal generation, and encounters, are designed to meet two specific goals; as a prod to the imagination, and for creating custom equipment or information. – p. 8

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Courtesy thealexandrian.net

As I look at myself critically, I see that when I play CT I am a Casual Player. However, there are times when I really like to explore the System Engineer I go to T5. Interestingly, if I am trying to be a Detailed Role-Player I don’t usually use a Traveller system, instead I gravitate towards a more Narrative-style RPG in Diaspora or Mindjammer (FATE Core 2nd Edition, not the horrible Mindjammer Traveller) or Firefly or Star Wars: Edge of the Empire.

I think another major reason player uses are so different between CT and T5 is because T5 lacks CT-like encounter rules. “Encounters” in this case are not fights but “situations” that lead to adventure. Real CT is actually built on encounters. In T5 there is a nod to this style (the Adventures chapter) but it lacks the Encounter Tables found in CT thru T4. Instead the focus in on EPIC Adventures (EPIC meaning Easy, Playable, Interactive,  Checklist).

I don’t like it.

Without encounters T5 loses a great amount of the “Traveller charm” that I love and enjoy playing. I certainly use T5 to build but not play. Maybe this is because at heart I rebel these days against a setting that I see as hamstringing my play. I realize I appear to be talking out of both sides of my mouth; I seemingly dislike settings but at the same time enjoy CT or Cepheus Engine settings like The Clement Sector or Orbital: 2100 or These Stars are Ours! Each of these settings use the encounter mechanic from CT. Certainly one can make an EPIC Adventure within the setting but its not my preference. CT (and these days CE) support my preferred encounter style of play.


Marc Miller’s Traveller, Copyright ©1996 by Imperium Games, Inc. Traveller is a registered trademark of Far Future Enterprises. Used under license by Imperium Games, Inc. 

Traveller5: Science Fiction Adventures in the Far Future, v5.09; Copyright ©2015 Far Future Enterprises.

“Traveller, Basic Traveller, Starter Traveller, Classic Traveller, MegaTraveller, Traveller: The New Era, Traveller4, Traveller5, Traveller8, The Spinward Marches, The Edge of the Empire, EPIC, The Galaxiad, and Journal of the Traveller’s Aid Society are trademarks of Far Future Enterprises.”

#ThreatTuesday – Planning the PLA Navy

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Courtesy BGG

Being a Navy guy, I have long played naval wargames. For modern tactical naval combat nothing beats Harpoon in my book. I started way back with Harpoon II in 1983. The current version is Harpoon 4 first published by Clash of Arms in 1997 and now by Admiralty Trilogy Games.

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Courtesy BGG

I am also a fan of the Asia-Pacific theater, having spent way too many years in the Western Pacific. The Harpoon system does have a “sourcebook” for the Pacific Rim in the expansion Sea of Dragons, but it was published way back in 1997!

With the news that China is set to launch it’s first indigenously built carrier any day now, I got to thinking about how one would update at least the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) order of battle information in Sea of Dragons. Fortunately for wargamers, there are several excellent publicly available sources to help!

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Courtesy ONI

The first is from the Office of Naval Intelligence. In 2015, ONI published The PLA Navy: New Capabilities and Missions for the 21st Century. In addition to the publication itself, ONI also has provided useful graphics and videos and maps on their website. This should be every wargamer’s first stop when looking at the modern PLA Navy.

But today is 2017, and the Chinese have not been resting on their laurels since ONI printed their book. In another stroke of luck, gamers can look to Ronald O’Rourke of the Congressional Research Service. China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress is updated several times a year and is one of the best running estimates of the threat. It is a very useful publication for bringing the ONI 2015 report forward to today.

I would also point the wargamer to Andrew Erickson’s excellent website. Dr. Erickson is on the faculty of the Naval War College, China Maritime Studies Institute. He specializes in using Chinese-language sources to study the PLA Navy and is a prolific speaker and author on the topic.

Between these three sources one should be able to update Sea of Dragons and get a better sense of what the PLA Navy would look like in a tactical naval game like Harpoon 4. One probably also will need to purchase back issues of The Naval SITREP magazine from the Admiralty Trilogy Group on a site such as Wargame Vault to get many ship characteristics.

#SciFiFriday – Agent of the Imperium: A Story of the Traveller Universe (Marc Miller, 2015)

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Cover courtesy GoodReads

Within the Traveller RPG community, there is an acronym known as IMTU, or “In My Traveller Universe.” This usually denotes a setting that may draw from, or be different, from the OTU or “Official Traveller Universe.” When Marc Miller, the creator of the Traveller RPG writes, one would think that anything he publishes should be canon and part of the OTU. It was with this bias that I started reading Agent of the Imperium (AoI). By the time I was finished, I am not so sure that what I read is OTU, or Mr. Miller’s version of his own IMTU.

**WARNING – MINOR SPOILERS POSSIBLE**

To me, Traveller has always been about the little guy; average joes who did their time in the service and now are out wandering the spacelanes for adventure. As much as I played around in the Third Imperium setting, it really is the far frontiers adventure of the 1977-edition Little Black Books which had no real setting other than to travel. So when I started reading AoI I expected a character much like Captain Jamison, the Merchant Captain used in every character generation example since Classic Traveller.

Instead, we get Jonathan Bland, a Decider agent of the Quarantine Agency. He is brought to life for 30 days at  time with a wafer chip. He is not a lowly adventurer – he is/was a member of a powerful bureaucracy and now an agent of the Emperors themselves. This was one of many events that challenged my vision of the OTU; I had never really considered cyberpunk elements in the setting nor adventure at these higher levels of government. Indeed, if one looks at the starship computer rules with their immense size (measured in displacement Tons of 13.5 cubic meters) the idea of advanced brain chips seemed so foreign to the game!

It is through Jonathan Bland that we see the Third Imperium develop. Surprising me again, this story does not take place in the Golden Age of the Traveller RPG setting (around game year 1105) but rather starts in year 350, or almost 800 years before OTU adventures. More interesting was to see Mr. Miller’s view of the Third Imperium in this time. In this he used several tropes that I was familiar with – and expected – in a Traveller book but introduced others that I had not consciously associated with the Third Imperium. In this respect the book is highly successful; it challenged my pre-conceived notions and made me imagine more. But at the same time AoI made me think about what the Third Imperium setting means to me.

When trying to fit Agent of the Imperium into my view of the Traveller RPG universe, I have to designate this one as the “Marc Miller IMTU of the OTU.” It’s not that I don’t like the book (I do) but the story is loftier than I imagined the OTU to be. I find nothing wrong with the story of AoI, but as a game inspiration it is more an example of the awe and wonder of the Third Imperium rather than adventure seeds.

 

 

#RPGThursday – On the Road

Am on travel this week. Plenty of time to read. After reading Tales to Astound blog have become fascinated with the early Traveller RPG system. I found my 1977 Little Black Books before I left home.  Interesting that the FFE CD starts with the 1981 LBBs and then onto The Traveller Book and Starter Traveller.

Looking back, I evolved from the ’77 LBBs to ’81 without realizing it. I never used The Traveller Book or Starter Traveller. I missed MegaTraveller and Traveller New Era and came back in on Mongoose 1E. Now onto Cepheus Engine. That said, looking back at the original Classic Traveller is very intriguing! Unlike the 15 year old me that missed implied setting details I now hunt out and want to explore what they really mean.

#WargameWednesday – Need More Power, Scotty! (Federation Commander, Amarillo Design Bureau)

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Courtesy BoardGameGeek

Although I don’t talk about it here that much, the biggest wargame of my younger years was Star Fleet Battles (SFB). I started out with the original Task Force Games baggie and kept going through the Captain’s Edition. For the longest time, the Star Fleet Universe (SFU) was my version of Star Trek.

SFB is all about starship duels in the SFU. The core mechanic of gameplay is Energy Allocation; ships produce a finite amount of power and to do anything – from firing to movement to shields – takes power. Some people accuse SFB of being “accountants in space” because it all comes down to how much power a ship has and how it gets used. SFB also suffered from tremendous rules and errata bloat making critics call it “Advanced Squad Leader in Space.” None of this stopped my friends and I from getting EVERY SFB product produced. One of my friends had his ship design published. We even bought into the Starline 2400-line of miniatures and played giant battles on an old ping-pong table in my basement. SFB was THE wargame of our youth. We fully embraced the complex rules because they modeled so well the interaction between different ships with different capabilities and limitations. Though SFB we learned how to really analyze a system and make it work in our favor.

As the years passed we all went our separate ways. I faithfully carried my SFB collection in a giant tub container through college and 20 years of military moves. As the RockyMountainNavy Boys grew, I wanted to pull out SFB but was always hesitant because I know how complicated it is and how much dedication it takes to learn to play, much less become anything near proficient.

In the mid-2000’s Amarillo Design Bureau rolled out a companion version of SFB called Federation Commander (FC). As their own website says:

The game system is based on energy. You count how much energy your starship generates at the start of each turn, and pay for a “baseline speed”. The rest of your energy is spent during the turn to fire weapons, operate systems (tractor beams, transporters), to speed up, to slow down, or to reinforce your shields. During each of the eight impulses of each turn, ships move (up to four times at the highest speed) and you have the opportunity to fire weapons or operate systems.

Ships are presented in two scales; Fleet Scale is “half the size” of Squadron Scale and can be used to resolve larger battles in less time.

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Courtesy BGG

FC is a simplified, faster playing version of SFB. The core mechanic – energy allocation – remains but that energy allocation takes place throughout the turn vice a pre-plot for SFB. Each turn in FC is divided into 8 impulses vice 32 in SFB. These changes speed up the game considerably.

Speaking at breakfast last week, Little RMN was asking about different games and we got into discussing what I call “manual video games.” He asked about different starship combat games and I reminisced about SFB. He was interested, and asked to play. Instead of SFB we pulled out FC.

It was interesting.

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Courtesy BGG

We played a 2v2 ship battle of roughly equal point value. I still find the energy allocation mechanic to be very thematic. The RMN Boys are not big Trekkies so they don’t have the same appreciation of that aspect of the game. They found the interplay of movement-weapons-defenses interesting but lamented the SLOOOOOW pace of the game. The Impulse Movement steps are intended to avoid the IGOUGO problem of a ship dancing around an opponent without fear of harm. I embrace this design solution; the boys find it ponderous.

FC is a highly thematic and detailed approach to depicting starship combat in the Star Fleet Universe. I know it is not as detailed as SFB, but my boys will probably never learn that. We will play FC again when the mood strikes us; but that mood has to be a desire to deeply explore the interaction of different capabilities and design doctrines.

Reawakening X-Wing (Star Wars: X-Wing Minis – Force Awakens Core Set)

“Outnumbered and outgunned, a cunning star fighter pilot leads his enemies into a minefield. Will it be enough to turn the tide of battle, or will superior numbers prevail?” From Mission F1: Ambush, Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game – The Force Awakens Core Set, Mission Guide

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Initial Setup
Mission F1 pits a Resistance T-70 X-Wing flown by Blue Squadron Novice (24 pts) against a pair of TIE/FO fighters (Epsilon Sqdn Pilot – 15 pts/Zeta Sqdn Pilot – 16 pts). The squadron point build imbalance is offset by the presence of three mine tokens in the battle space controlled by the Resistance player.

 

 

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Sweeping In
Swinging to the left, he tried to draw the TIEs across the minefield but they didn’t take the bait, instead sweeping to their left while keeping out of the lethal radius of the mines. Reversing hard into a tight turn, he raced through the minefield to get into position. His first shot was lucky and hit the trailing TIE which accelerated to get out of range while the second one turned to attack.

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Death of Epsilon
Ignoring a TIE that executed a Segnor’s Loop almost in front of him, he blasted one TIE away. Dangerously, he cut in front of the other TIE, just avoiding blasts of lethal energy. Boosting away, he extended the range as the other TIE followed. Dashing around the asteroid field, the TIE came just close enough to a mine to detonate it. His sensors told him the shields on the TIE were down. “That’s one chink in the armor,” he thought.

 

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Stressed Out and Still Too Close
As he continued around an asteroid, the TIE tried to cut the corner. Unfortunately, it came a bit too close to another mine and set it off. Sensors said it was damaged!

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Splash Two!
Stressing his T-70, he reversed hard into the TIE. He quickly lined up his shot. With a sharp intake of breath he watched his energy bolts hit the TIE. He exhaled slowly as it exploded. He muttered to himself, “The Force was with me.”

 

It has been a long time since I played X-Wing. I had picked up Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game – The Force Awakens Core Set a while back and it has sat on my shelf – unopened – for several months. The RockyMountainNavy boys seem to have passed their initial fascination with X-Wing and in many ways it was replaced with Wings of Glory.  I pulled it out for a somewhat rare weeknight gaming session.

Having not played in a while I didn’t use many optional rules. The fighters were all stock with no modifications. Relearning gameplay was quick (X-Wing is not complicated). Although the gameplay is not complex, there were more than a few “tactical errors” committed since the ships were new to us and their capabilities and limitations unexplored. Most significantly, near the end the Zeta TIE could have used their Action to Barrel Roll away from the mine and stay out of the lethal radius instead of looking ahead to  the T-70 threat and placing an Evade token to try to avoid any hits.

Playing X-Wing reminded me that this is one of the games in my collection that I classify as a “Manual Videogame.” The concept of Squadron Builds, Modifications, and Actions (special abilities) all are common with video games. That is not to say I dislike X-Wing; rather, I see it for what it is. The RockyMountainNavy boys, especially Little I, love the Manual Videogame-style of gaming. Pulling out X-Wing reminded us all that this is a lite, fun game that is highly thematic and “pulls you into” the story. It deserves to be on the table more.