#RPGThursday #StarTrek Adventures Alpha Playtest Initial Thoughts

Courtesy Modiphius Entertainment

I am participating in Modiphius Entertainment’s Star Trek Adventures (STA) living playtest campaign. Over the Thanksgiving Weekend they released the first playtest package, Alpha v1.2. According to their email:

Attention Crew! You have a short journey ahead of you to Narendra Station where you’ll be assigned to one of several ships…
This email includes a link to download the very first Alpha test of the Star Trek Adventures Living Playtest. For this adventure player characters are newly deployed cadets heading toward Narendra Station on a shuttle for assignment to their various vessels. During the trip, they receive a distress call from a science outpost on a planet that’s been struck by a highly irradiated ion storm. The shuttle crash-landed on the surface and the crew was attacked by primitive hostile humanoid creatures wielding clubs and rocks.
This first adventure is set in the 24th century (TNG era) and is for all crews regardless of which ship they picked. You are assigned cadets as characters for this very first mission but in subsequent missions you will be playing aboard your chosen ship with a wide choice of bridge crew. This first mission is to introduce you to basics of the rules however the results will affect the on-going Living Campaign plot. Additional rules will be introduced with each new playtest pack.
The Rescue at Xerxes 4 (by Shawn Merwin) is the first adventure in the Star Trek Adventures Living Campaign playtest series. This adventure is meant to be played by a Gamemaster (GM) and 3-7 player characters, using the pre-generated characters provided.
We will be asking for feedback in December so get testing as soon as you can!

The download package includes Alpha Rules v1.2, 12 playtest pregens, Playtest Summary sheets, the above referenced adventure, and a short background document.

I was a bit disappointed with the Alpha package because I specifically signed up for a Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS)-era playtest campaign. After reading the Modiphius Forums I understand the intent to use a single Alpha playtest package to introduce the basic rules before getting into era-specific adventures, but it still was disappointing to not start off like I expected.

Exploring the (Warp) Core

STA uses Modiphius’ 2d20 system. This is a core mechanic I am not previously familiar with so I am really entering the playtest as a newbie to the system. To put my Bottom Line Up Front, I feel the 2d20 mechanic generates limited narrative opportunities at the cost of somewhat cumbersome mechanical implementation.

Starting off, the Alpha Playtest document is hard to read. I know this is the Alpha version and not supposed to be fancy, but the layout/format is not friendly to a flow of reading that helps to understand the game. To get a better understanding I got the free Modiphius Robert E. Howards CONAN Roleplaying Game Quickstart from DriveThruRPG which I found explained the 2d20 system better. The Conan Quickstart and STA Alpha are not identical, but the game concepts are similar enough to assist in understanding the system.

Mechanically, in the 2d20 System, each Task is given a difficulty rating from 0 to 5. The player adds the character’s Attribute and Skill to get a Target Number. When rolling 2d20, each roll under the TN is a success. The number of successes needed is the difficulty. Skills can also have a Focus, and rolling either a 1 or the Focus or less equals two successes. Damage is expressed in terms of Challenge Dice [CD] which is a d6 read with 1 and 2 equalling that number of successes, 3 and 4 meaning nothing, and 5 and 6 meaning a single success and an Effect.

Narratively, the players have Momentum (extra successes beyond the difficulty level) and Determination to spend. The GM has Threat. To mechanically or narratively effect a Task or the outcome the PCs use Momentum, Determination, Teamwork, or pay Threat. The GM has NPC Momentum, Teamwork, and Threat. Values can also be used by the players or challenged by the GM to influence the action.

Send in the Redshirts

All this sounds straight-forward; that is, until I actually tried playing it out. To resolve a task the player may be rolling up to 5d20 (2d20 baseline plus up to 3 additional when Improving the Odds) to determine success with options to narratively/mechanically intervene both before an after the Task Roll. Then, a pool of Challenge Dice are rolled (often to determine damage).

One of the Playtest Pregens – an obvious combat build – has a Control Attribute of 10 and a Security Skill of 4 with a Ranged Attack Focus of 4. Shooting a Type 2 Phaser, the basic attack  for this character has a Target Number of 14, meaning each d20 that rolls 14 or under (70% chance) scores a success, and any one rolling 4 or under (20% chance) scores  two successes. Remember too that a natural 20 (5% chance) is a Complication (and even that can grow up to a 25% chance given the right conditions). Assuming success against the basic Difficulty 2, this character now rolls 7x Challenge Dice (Basic Weapon Factor of 3 plus Security Skill 4) to determine damage. Any attack scoring five or more in a single attack (or when the Stress Track is depleted ) can cause an Injury. Characters look to have from 8 to 14 Stress. Note also that any successes beyond the basic needed (in the case of here beyond the 2 Difficulty) generates Momentum, and each character has between 3-4 Determination at the start of a session.

My gut reaction is that there are too many “fiddly bits” going on here. When reading the d20 one has to look for three factors; success (TN or less), Complication (natural 20), and extra success (natural 1 or Focus or less). The Challenge Dice also require careful reading too (1 = 1x success, 2= 2x success, 3 and 4 are nothing, 5 and 6 = 1x success plus Effect). I feel that assembling the dice pool will slow the game down.

GM: It’s getting dark, but as you look across the clearing, you see a team of Jem Hadar troopers leading the prisoners away. A reminder; the Momentum Pool is now 2.

PC: Might lose them the dark; gotta act now. [Head nods from other players] I shoot the squad leader.

GM: You both are in the same Zone, so you can make the shot, but given the poor lighting I think it will add to the Difficulty. Make it a Difficulty 3 shot. What is your TN [Control Attribute + Security Skill] and do you have a relevant Focus?

PC (Consulting Character Sheet): Uh…I have Control 8 plus Security 2 for a TN of 10 and I have no Focus I can use. That’s not too good. [Pause for thinking] I need to improve my odds, so I am going to pay one Determination [player puts a d20 on the table with the 1 face-up] which gives me two successes, and I will roll my other 2d20.

GM (Interrupting) Is your attack Stun or Kill? How many Charges are you using?

PC: Uh….They’re Jem Hadar but my Value “Mr. Nice Guy” means I use Stun. Do I get anything for that?

GM: You get one point of Momentum.

PC: OK…I think I am going to only use two charges for the Vicious setting because I really want to take this guy down quickly. [Rolling – 18 and 7]. Whew! The 18 is nothing but the 7 gives me a third success! I don’t get any more Momentum and I don’t think I will use my one earned now to improve the quality or scope of the success.

GM: OK…how many Challenge Dice do you roll?

PC (Again consulting Character Sheet) I’m carrying a Type 2 Phaser so that’s 3[CD] plus my Security of 2 for a total of 5[CD]. [Rolling – 1, 2, 3, 6, 6]. Uh…that’s 5 damage plus two Effect. The Vicious effect means I add 2 damage for a total of 7. That should be enough for an Injury…Stun means a knockout, right?

GM: Given that you surprised the Jem Hadar squad they don’t evade your attack nor will the Squad Leader resist the injury. They also aren’t wearing armor so there is no Soak. The 7 damage is enough to injure the squad leader…stunned he falls over unconscious. There still is that other guard though…and he turns your direction and raises his rifle….

PC: Well, I’ve taken my Major Action for this round. I am going to add my earned Momentum to the pool making it three, but [looking at fellow players] I think we need to spend 2 Momentum here to keep the initiative and take down the other guard, right guys?

Need more narrative, Scotty!

Having played Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars RPGs with their unique dice mechanic and Destiny Points, or even Savage Worlds or Cortex Plus with Bennies and Plot Points, this reading of multiple dice and managing a game economy should not be a problem. But it bothers me. I think the difference is that those other systems use a single dice throw to determine success and impact. The Modiphius 2d20 system uses at least two throws for each attack. A small difference to be sure. There are also three game economies to be managed (Momentum – both individual and group, Determination by individual, and Threat). I am also not convinced that Momentum or Determination and Threat are powerful enough narratively; indeed they really come across as more mechanical in effect than narrative in nature.

Another part that bothers me is terminology. In parts the system has a very Star Trek vibe to it (like Skills named after departments) but in other places the language seems forced (like the “Vicious” setting for a phaser – never thought of a phaser as vicious). The ned result is that  I’m just not getting that Star Trek adventure feeling yet.

Maybe after the running through the first adventure I will have a different perspective.

#RPGThursday Retrospective -Cortex Worlds (Serenity, 2005; Battlestar Galactica, 2007; Savage Worlds Explorer’s Edition, 2008)

I spent 2007-2009 stationed overseas, and my access to gaming materials was limited. Upon my return stateside in 2009, I quickly searched the local game stores and found a game that changed my RPG life. The game was an RPG based on the reimagined Battlestar Galactica TV series. Battlestar Galactica Role Playing Game (BSG) represents to my a major turning point in my RPG gaming history.

It’s in Color!

Courtesy Battlestarwiki

BSG was a very different game that I had seen in the past few years. First off, the Corebook was a hardcover that was lavishly illustrated with pictures from the TV series. It did not have the desktop publishing feel that I had become accustomed to in the past few years (see the 1990’s and my Second RPG Interregnum).

Cortex at the Core

BSG used the Cortex System (these days the BSG version is known as Cortex Classic). In Cortex, character attributes are not numbers, but a die type ranging from d4 to d12+d4. Skills were also described by die types, and each character also had Assets or Complications that also were rated by a die type. The core mechanic was a simple Skill Die + Attribute Die vs. a Difficulty number.

Assets and Complications were very interesting to me. BSG was the first time I really saw a mechanical impact of role playing characteristics of a player character. But the part that really excited me was Plot Points. Although I had played with Hero Points in James Bond 007 RPG, it was the Plot Points mechanic in BSG where I first started understanding a “game economy.” I also have to say that BSG has my second-favorite ever Combat Example (second only to James Bond 007 RPG) which replays a scene recognizable from the series.

The other very interesting part of BSG were vehicles. Unlike vehicles and spacecraft in the Traveller RPG games, BSG described vehicles in the same way characters were presented; attributes and traits. I actually embraced this approach because it was more “narrative” and fit with the Assets/Complications and Plot Points in supporting more narrative play.

Finding Serenity

So much did I like BSG that I went in search of another Cortex System game; Serenity. Published by Margret Weis in 2005, it was the 2005 Origins Awards Gamer’s Choice Best Role Playing Game of the Year Winner. I had missed this one but now caught up. Serenity uses a earlier (and slightly less refined) version of Cortex Classic but was similar enough that I caught on easily.

A Savage Exploration

Having caught the “attribute as dice” bug, in 2008 I picked up the then-new Savage Worlds Explorer’s Edition. Described as “Fast! Furious! and Fun!” I quickly discovered that this rulebook was another set of rules sans setting. It also had a near-miniatures rules feel to it (see Figures and Battle Mats, p. 4). That said, I really was intrigued by:

  • Character attributes described by dice
  • Edges/Hinderances
  • Wild Cards and Extras (maybe the first time I recognized “Minion” rules)
  • Bennies (Game Economy)
  • Initiative using playing cards

The part that confused me was Arcane Backgrounds. I had a difficult time grasping this at first, and really didn’t understand what Arcane Background could do until seeing it used in a later setting book.

Discovering a New Narrative

The major impact BSG/Serenity and Savage Worlds had on my RPG gaming experience was the introduction of a more narrative style of play. The use of Assets/Complications or Edges/Hinderances along with the game economy tools of Plot Points/Bennies totally changed how I viewed playing RPGs. My games became less simulationist and more narrative. Now, I had seen (and played) some more narrative games (like James Bond 007 RPG or even Babylon Project) but I did not fully recognize what was happening. With Cortex System and Savage Worlds I recognized this change in gaming style and embraced it. It also helped that at this time I moved away from a preference for hard(ish) sci-fi settings and went to settings influenced by pulp (in no small part due to my discovery of the Wold Newton Universe through Philip Jose Farmer’s Tarzan Alive and The Other Log of Phileas Fog and Win Scott Eckert’s Myths for the Modern Age

The move to narrative also explains my next purchase.

Battlestar Galactica Role Playing Game, Copyright (c) 2007 Margaret Weis Productions, Ltd. and Universal Studios Licensing LLLP. 

Serenity Role Playing Game, Copyright (C) 2005 Margaret Weis Productions, Ltd. and Universal Studios Licensing LLLP.

Savage Worlds Explorer’s Edition, Copyright (C) 2008 Pinnacle Entertainment Group. Produced under license by Studio 2 Publishing, Inc.

#RPGThursday Retrospective -#ThousandSuns #Traveller

While stationed overseas in 2008, I was experimenting with new RPGs in search of a good science fiction game. I was in the middle of my Star Wars Roleplaying Game – Saga Edition experience but was not “feeling the love.” I wanted a sci-fi RPG more like the old Classic Traveller RPG. I didn’t want swords in space.

Thousand Suns Rising

I think it was through some gaming websites that I came across Thousand Suns by James Maliszewski and Richard Iorio II. The first thing that caught my attention was the liberal use of quotes from Golden age science fiction stories like Alfred Bester’s The Stars, My Destination. I also was attracted to the intent of Thousand Suns, as laid out in Chapter 1: Basics, The Game:

Science fiction, it’s been said, is really about the present, not the future. Consequently, a lot of older science fiction – including the works that inspired Thousand Suns – feels somewhat dated because the concerns of the time when they were written don’t always translate well across decades. Yet, older science fiction often joined a wide-eyed sense of wonder with an appreciation for classical archetypes that’s generally lacking in either the jaded cynicism of cyberpunk or naive optimism of transhumanist SF of the present day. Thousand Suns is an attempt to marry the best of the past to the best of the present to create exciting space opera roleplaying adventures in the imperial SF tradition.

Imperial science fiction – whether classical or contemporary – is a vast genre, both in terms of its literal scope and its diversity. Of necessity, it takes place over a large canvas, with hundreds, even thousands, of worlds as potential sites for adventures. Having such a large canvas allows it to encompass almost any kind of science fiction story, big or small. (p. 9)

While the setting potential initially drew me in, the game engine kept me interested. The core mechanic is called 12º. It is a very simple system:

Roll 2d12 and if the result is equal to or less than your Target Number (TN), the action succeeds. It’s as simple as that.

Your TN is a number based on two associated Abilities or skills plus or minus any modifiers. (p. 12)

Tests, or checks, come in three forms; Ability Tests, Skill Tests, and Opposed Tests. There is a narrative play element introduced with the possibility of Dramatic Failure or Dramatic Success. There are also Degrees of success to consider. There was also a difficulty ladder of modifiers to the TN.

Further reinforcing a narrative play element was the concept of Hooks and Action Points. Hooks were described as:

…roleplaying tools that describe some aspect of your character’s past history, personality, or connections to other characters, among other things….Each of these hooks is suggestive about your character and possibly about his relationship to the wider universe – both of which make them invaluable to the GM as he plans engaging adventures among the Thousand Suns.

Besides suggesting interesting things about your character to the GM, hooks have another more immediate benefit: Action Points. Action Points are a kind of dramatic “currency” you acquire by creating hooks. They can be traded for situational boons, such as bonuses to your Target Number, free re-rolls, and other benefits. (p. 16)

I found the idea of Hooks and Action Points fascinating. Hooks were a non-mechanical character aspect that gave the GM ideas for adventures. Action Points were a very mechanical element for the player to use to affect the luck of the dice, or even being able to go as far as “edit” a scene (p. 58).

Outside of a different core mechanic, and the use of Hooks and Action Points, the rest of Thousand Suns had a very Classic Traveller RPG feel to it. Character generation was not Traveller’s career, but instead a mix of point buy and “packages.” Vehicles/Spacecraft was very abstract combat process and design harkened back to a Classic Traveller Book 2 simple process. Even the World creation was – if not a near-direct copy of Classic Traveller – a close spiritual successor.

Looking at the book today for this retrospective, I now also realize that most of the book is rules, not setting. This is all the more surprising to me because I it was the implied setting – Imperial Science Fiction – that drew me in. In Thousand Suns there is a Meta-Setting, but even here (Chapter 7) it still offers options like:

  • The State – or Concordium – could be the “Second Federation” or “Empire of the Thousand Suns.”
  • The Head of State may be “The First Citizen,” “The Puppet,” “The Corrupt Politico,” “The Man of Vision,” The Zealot,” “The Emperor,” “The Doddering Fool,” “The Naif,” “The Once and Future Emperor,” or “The Tyrant.”

Even when Thousand Suns offered up a setting, it still gave options for the user to pick and chose from.

Lastly, Thousand Suns included a Bibliography which is really list of inspiration sources. This collection of books and stories are essential Imperial Science Fiction reading.

So much did I like Thousand Suns that I wrote a review on DriveThruRPG that proclaimed Thousand Suns was the spiritual successor to Classic Traveller.

That is, until I found Mongoose Traveller (MgT).

I am not sure how I acquired my first Mongoose Traveller book. I have two copies of the Pocket Rulebook. Like so many other long time Traveller players, I was immediately drawn in by the simple black cover with the red line crossing underneath the Traveller title. Inside I found a game system that I was very familiar, and comfortable, with.

Familiar, yet not identical. Character generation was more refined, with items such as Characteristic Modifiers, Background Skills, Connections, and different tables to add Mishaps, Events, and even Life Events. The core mechanic remained roll 8+ on 2d6, but now there was an expressly defined difficulty ladder. Personal combat was more abstracted, with actions and range bands and armor reducing damage. Space combat was even more abstracted, doing away with Classic Traveller’s vector movement and becoming more like an extension of personal combat. Other parts, like starship construction, animal encounters, worlds and trade were very similar to the LBBs.

Like Thousand Suns, MgT is mostly rules with little setting. There were no aliens in the Classic Traveller LBB, but they are present in MgT. My searchable pdf of the Main Rulebook only returns seven (7) instances of “Third Imperium,” the setting that has become synonymous with Traveller. Like I had so many times before, I missed the part which said, “While the Traveller rules can be used for almost any science fiction novel, movie or setting, the traditional setting for games is the Third Imperium of Mankind….”(p. 2). In some fashion, MgT achieved the goals set out by Marc Miller in Traveller 4 to be a universal science fiction rules system.

So Mongoose Traveller became my new RPG of choice. Over the next few years I would invest heavily in the system. But what MgT lacks is narrative play. Like its predecessor Classic Traveller, the GM is king. Looking back, as much as I love Traveller, I also think it was this time that I started wanted a system that had more narrative. I looked back fondly at James Bond 007 Roleplaying Game, and even Thousand Suns had narrative Hooks and Action PointsMgT lacked any nod to narrative elements and had no game economy.

My next purchases were a major step in the narrative direction, and opened up a who new gaming frontier to me.

Thousand Suns, Copyright 2008, Rogue Games, Authors James Maliszewski and Richard Iorio II.

Traveller ©2008 Mongoose Publishing. Traveller is a trademark of Far Future Enterprises and is used under license.

“The Traveller game in all forms is owned by Far Future Enterprises. Copyright 1977-2016 Far Future Enterprises.”


#WargameWednesday – Dawn of the Battleship (Admiralty Trilogy Games, 2016)

Dawn of the Battleship: Tactical Naval Warfare 1890-1904; by Chris Carlson, Forward by Dr. Norman Friedman, edited by Larry Bond, published by The Admiralty Trilogy Group, ©2016.

Courtesy BoardGameGeek

Dawn of the Battleship (DotB) is the first Admiralty Trilogy rules system that I have bought since the end of the Admiralty Trilogy Group (ATG) relationship with Clash of Arms in 2015. The end of that publishing relationship led to the Admiralty Trilogy Group (ATG) expanding into digital publishing using WargameVault.

According to the publisher’s blurb:

Dawn of the Battleship simulates naval warfare from 1890 up to 1904, just before technology began to quickly change in the years leading up to WW I. During this period, there were no all-big-gun battleships, aircraft, gun directors, or radios. In the 1890’s, 1,500 yards was considered effective range, and 3,000 yards was long range. If you’ve played other naval games, you’ll have to get in real close if you want to hit.

DotB covers an often overlooked period of naval warfare. During this time there were few conflicts where the navies of the day seemingly factored in. Looking at my copy of Helmut Pemsel’s A History of War at Sea (Naval Institute Press, 1975) between 1890 and 1904 the (few) naval events of interest include:

  • April 1891 Chilean Revolutionary War (torpedo-boat sinks armored ship)
  • April 1894 Brazilian Civi War (torpedo-boat sinks sea-going turret ship)
  • 1894-1895 Sino-Japanese War (includes the major fleet action at the Battle of the Yalu 17 Sep 1894)
  • 1898 Spanish American War (including the very lopsided US victories at Manila Bay and the Battle of Santiago)

Given the simple technology of the day, one would expect DotB to be a simplified version of the World War I-era Fear God & Dread Nought or Second World War Command at Sea rules. On one hand this is true, while on the other DotB clearly shows ATG’s commitment to being “an accurate simulation of over a century of naval warfare.”

One criticism I often hear of the Admiralty Trilogy series of games is that they are too complex. A good example is over at The Miniatures Page where poster Yellow Admiral responds to a DotB review request with “The delay is probably because the 3 people who like playing the Command at Sea system are still working their way through the last game of Fear God & Dread Nought that they started in 2015…. :-)” Personally, I find the system no more onerous than other miniature rules; the longest part is prep time and actual play goes relatively quickly. That said, there is a learning curve (steep in places) and a good referee/player needs to be well organized in advance to keep the game flow going. The Admiralty Trilogy is not a good “pick-up” game – it is best enjoyed with experience. Ages ago I did a comparison of nine different naval rules systems playing the same scenario. Admittedly, the Admiralty Trilogy game was almost the longest to prep and play (30 min prep/90 min play) although two others were close. However, the Admiralty Trilogy game was by far the most “realistic.”

Dawn of the Battleship is actually three products; the rulebook ($12), a Player’s Handbook ($3), and a scenario book (Monroe’s Legacy) ($16). The rulebook starts off with an excellent forward by respected naval historian Dr. Norman Friedman. Combined with the introduction Naval Technology 1880-1904 (p. 8) the core issues facing naval officers and nations are succinctly laid out. As always, ATG delivers an excellent history lesson. The rules themselves are not very different from the other Admiralty Trilogy series, a real testament to the ATG commitment to a harmonization process using a common game structure.

Chapter Two – Game Mechanics covers preparing for the game (filling out Ship Reference Sheets) the Turn Sequence and Command and Control. DotB uses two turn scales, Intermediate (30 min) and Tactical (3 min). Command and Control is actually a collection of optional rules for communications such as Visual Signals, Communications Procedures, and Fog of War. None of the communications rules are required for play, but all enhance the realism of the simulation.

Chapter Three – Ship Movement uses the “Three Minute Rule” as its foundation. Unlike many games, turning is not with a movement gauge but by looking up the Ship Turning Distance – or “advance.” I have heard that some gamers don’t like this approach, but it is the one ATG choses. Again, once you get used to it it becomes second-nature.

Chapter Four – Detection is another chapter I often hear criticized. The Admiralty Trilogy uses a visual detection model where they factor in many variables. Personally, I like this extra chrome. What many seem to overlook is that it doesn’t have to be used. I think many players miss the part where the designer writes:

If the players wish to forgo the visual detection die roll, just use the 50% detection sighting range as the detection threshold. This won’t generally affect daylight battles that much, however, it will place smaller units at a considerable disadvantage at night. (p. 4-4)

There is also an optional rules for Sighting in Intermediate Turns which also skips the rolls  and “speeds play considerably” though again it is “not recommended for night engagements.” (p. 4-4)

The major “difference” from other games in the series is in Chapter Five – Combat and the use of Gunnery Standard 0, tailored hit chances and modifiers to account for gunnery combat in this era, and new torpedo attack tables (again accounting for this era). There are also rules to account for the Light Battery and torpedoes. This chapter also includes rules for Coastal Defenses, including Coastal Defense Fortresses with Fixed Batteries of Mortars and even Shore-Based Torpedo Batteries or Field Artillery Batteries. Controlled Minefields and Mining Casemates are also included.

Chapter Six – Ship Damage Results is another chapter where I hear complaints. The Admiralty Trilogy uses two damage models; a progressive hit-point damage system and a Critical Hit system. Of the two, the Critical Hit is the most important. Progressive damage, be it flooding or fire, is also modeled and important to the survival (or destruction) of a ship. For these processes the model can get complicated, but once again familiarity breeds speed.

Chapter Seven – Attacks Against Land Targets and Chapter Eight – Mine Warfare add dimensions of naval combat that get so often overlooked in the battles of World War I or the Second World War and all-but-forgotten in the modern era of Harpoon 4.

If I have one complaint, it is the format of the product though even here I am torn. The books are laid out in the traditional print format that ATG used when being published hardcopy by Clash of Arms. This is usually a two- or three-column across setup using a rather dense print. On a full-size page (8.5″x11″) this works fine. On a tablet not so much – the text becomes too fine and small. WargameVault does offer a Print-on-Demand (PoD) option but I have not pulled the trigger on that expense.

A second complaint stems from the first; ATG page references still use their older printed page reference system. For instance, ATG numbers different sections/chapters individually. Thus, Chapter One – Introduction, starts on page 1-1 and ends on page 1-3. This equates to pages 10 and 12 of the pdf copy.  In my pdf copy, I cannot search for page 1-3 (I think headers are non-searchable). I am not sure what advice to give ATG on how to solve this problem; in the move to digital publishing a different reference scheme seems appropriate, but at the same time the present scheme supports the print version.

To help the player or referee get organized for play, the Player’s Handbook extracts many of the tables needed during the game. That said, there are still many smaller rules and modifiers that get buried in the dense text of the rulebook. For instance, buried in the second column on page 6-2 are penetration modifiers for shells against face-hardened armor. These modifiers are not carried over to the Player’s Handbook. A more thorough scrub of the rules is necessary to extract many important modifiers.

Monroe’s Legacy is the real history lesson of DotB. The 103 pages include nearly 30 scenarios (many hypothetical) and the Data Annexes for this era.

In the end I am glad I bought DotB. If one is an Admiralty Trilogy player the entire three-book collection is a must-buy. If you are not an Admiralty Trilogy player but want to explore naval combat in this era with your own favorite rules system, Monroe’s Legacy is probably a good investment.

#RPGThursday Retrospective – My #StarWars Saga (Star Wars RPG Saga Edition, 2007)

Courtesy Wookiepedia

Between 2007 and 2009 I was stationed overseas, and therefore had limited access to RPG items. I had put a lot of my items in storage so I did not have a strong library to draw upon. I was looking for a new RPG game, but had resigned myself to having to wait until my return stateside or use DriveThruRPG (a risky proposition given the internet security of the time). One day I was in the Base Exchange and saw a new book on the shelf, Star Wars Roleplaying Game – Saga Edition Core Rulebook. The book caught my eye partially because it used a very different form factor (9″x9″) and had a beautiful gold Darth Vader on the cover.

Forward – Going Back?

The Forward was very interesting because Chris Perkins claimed this was the latest iteration of a Star Wars RPG and the first to span the entire six-episode saga (p. 5). This was news to me; I had missed the earlier excellent West End Games Star Wars RPG – although interestingly I had the associated Star Wars: Star Warriors star fighter combat board game – and the original WotC version.

Saga Engine

In terms of the game engine, Star Wars Saga (SWSaga) technically used Wizards of the Coast d20 Modern. In reality, it would later become apparent SWSaga was an interim step between d20 Modern and Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. I had tried to use the d20 Modern engine before, but had only limited success. This time around I committed myself to learning the system and playing with it. In concept it sounds so easy:


The Star Wars Roleplaying Game uses a core mechanic to resolve all actions. This central game rule keeps play fast and intuitive. Whenever you want to attempt an action that has some chance of failure, you roll a twenty-sided die (or “d20”). To determine whether your character succeeds at a task (such as an attack or the use of a skill, you do this:

  • Roll a d20.
  • Add any relevant modifiers.
  • Compare the result to a target number.

If the result equals or exceeds the target number (set by the GM or given in the rules), your character succeeds at the task at hand. If the result is lower than the target number, you fail. (p. 9)

So simple, and easy to figure out. Except that d20 is built on breaking the rules. Feats and Talents are mechanical ways characters can act in addition to the rules. This concept took a long time for me to fully understand because d20 appears internally inconsistent since it emphasizes – at least to me – ways for characters to “break” rules.

Characters with Class

Unlike the Traveller RPG system I was so familiar with, character generation in SWSaga uses classes. Coming as I do from a Traveller RPG background, classes have always felt foreign to me. That said, I dug into SWSaga and built many characters, putting together their Attributes and Skills and Feats and Talents (oh my!).

I struggled again to understand what I was doing. Looking at it critically, I think I struggle with character generation using classes in d20 because I subconciously want to see a life path progression system, not a video game-like leveling up of characters.

May the Fourth Be With You

Combat also proved challenging. As it soon became apparent, SWSaga was moving towards D&D 4th Edition, in which combat has sometime been described as a tabletop video game. On one hand the combat system was a bit familiar, being that it drew heavily from WotC’s Star Wars Miniatures game that I played with my boys. But at the same time it was different. A different part that I found very confusing was Conditions (p. 149). I think I found Conditions confusing not because of what they represent, but how they were presented in the book. Going back now (and after many other narrative games) I see how conditions attempt to explain a non-damage situation in terms of a mechanical game effect. At heart it is not really a difficult concept to imagine, but I found it was not communicated very well by the unlabeled Condition Track on p. 149.

Force…and Destiny

For an RPG about Star Wars, I found The Force rules convoluted and disorganized. In particular, it would seem to make sense to look at Chapter 6: The Force for the relevant rules but within that section one is referred to the Use the Force skill in Chapter 4 (p. 77). Looking at Chapter 6 today, I can see that The Dark Side, and especially Dark Side Transgressions, were a stab at non-mechanical (i.e. narrative) means of explaining how to avoid falling to the Dark Side. To further add to the confusion, Destiny Points (found in Chapter 7: Heroic Traits) were included as an optional form of game economy but I rarely used them because the narrative effect was limited – whatever narrative action was there had been reduced down to a table lookup mechanic (seven effects, three of which were Force-related)(p. 113). From today’s perspective, and after having now played Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars Roleplaying Game, I see how SWSaga Destiny is an earlier form of FFG Star Wars’ Obligation / Duty / Morality mechanic. However, the implementation in SWSaga is weak; the relationship between a character’s Destiny (p. 112) and the tangible Destiny Point is neither detailed nor strong.

Sad Saga

As much as I tried, I just could never get SWSaga really going. It was not for lack of effort on my part; I eventually bought EVERY SWSaga book in the series. In the end though, I found the setting suffered from the same bloat and canonicity battles that plague the Traveller RPG community – that is, the setting is too detailed and too well defined that it is easy for a GM to get locked into a certain course of action. Indeed, after purchasing every book in the SWSaga series, I realize that I had too much information (although the entire collection is a good ode to Star Wars Legendsbut in the end the rules were too bloated for me to handle.

A New Start

So committed was I to turning over my d20 leaf that I even bought the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game Starter Set (2008). I prepared to plunge into the world of D&D after avoiding it for 30 years. I really wanted to try to play d20. I thought my boys would want to play D&D (both read many of the Rick Riordan fantasy series). In the end though my inherent dislike of the fantasy RPG genre, coupled with a feeling that D&D 4th Edition was a tabletop video game, put a relatively quick end to that little gaming excursion. As much as I tried to make SWSaga my new science fiction RPG, it just didn’t work. As much as I love Star Wars, playing in the setting using SWSaga felt like I was getting too hemmed in. Even with the option of playing in multiple eras, it still felt restricted (it didn’t help that my boys were huge prequel and Clone Wars fans – two of my least favorite eras – and they wanted to play in those times whereas I didn’t).

The Saga Narrative…NOT!

In preparing for this retrospective, I pulled out the Core Rulebook and tried to look at it independently of the other books in the series. Much like the Traveller RPG community has arguments over the Little Black Books, I can see how the Core Rulebook – by itself – is not a bad game. Setting aside, everything needed to mechanically play a Star Wars adventure is included. Looking at it with my eyes today, I also see how SWSaga attempts to reduce many narrative play elements to mechanical effects. Nowhere is this better seen than in Talents and Feats. Unlike Skills which represent various abilities (be it trained, natural, or luck – p. 57), Talents are particular to a character class and Feats are special features that give characters new or improved capabilities (p. 79). Thus, the classic Star Wars character Han Solo (p. 255) gets classed as a Scoundrel (p. 45.) with the Spacehound Talent (p. 47) – giving him proficiency with starship weapons – and the Quick Draw Feat (p. 87) because, after all, Han shot first! All of this is very descriptive of the character, but together it reduces the character to a set of well-defined – even narrow – mechanical effects. The Core Rulebook example of Han Solo has him with four Classes, seven Talents, eight Feats (several of them in multiple areas) and six Skills. The implied game limitation it that without the “right” Talent or Feat, the action is unachievable by a character regardless of the player’s desire. Thus, instead of “playing” their characters, players start trying to gain/spend XP in pursuit of the right Skill/Talent/Feat to justify a desired action. To me, this is the opposite of narrative play.

So my search for a new RPG continued, and my next two RPG purchases brought back an oldie while introducing something new.

Star Wars Roleplaying Game: Saga Edition Revised Core Rulebook by Christopher Perkins, Owen K.C. Stephens, and Rodney Thompson; Copyright (c) 2007 Lucasfilm Ltd & (R) or TM Where Indicated, All Rights Reserved. Used Under Authorization. Some rules mechanics are based on the Star Wars Roleplaying Game Revised Core Rulebook by Bill Slavicsek, Andy Collins, and ID Wiker, the original DUNGEONS & DRAGONS (R) rules created by E. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, and the new DUNGEONS & DRAGONS game designed by Jonathan Tweet, Monte Cook, Skip Williams, Richard Baker, and Peter Atkinson. This Wizards of the Coast game product contains no Open Game Content.



Encountering #TravellerRPG using #CepheusEngine

Hattip to Tales to Astound for inspiration here.

Tales to Astound has a very interesting series on using the Classic Traveller RPG system. One item that caught my attention a few weeks back was Encounters. TTA rightly points out that in Classic Traveller, “Encounters are there to create situations, which lead to adventures.”

This describes my common GM style to a tee. I usually am a low-prep GM, depending on the situation as it develops to help create the adventure. Sure, I often have a meta plot that is working behind the scenes, but the Travellers often find themselves intersecting the meta plot, not necessarily driving it. It is through encounters that this intersection happens.

Looking at the new 2d6 Cepheus Engine System Reference Document, I decided to dig into the rules and find out where the encounters were. At the same time, I looked at other “events” that rely on time. Boy, was I in for a surprise for all I found. There are some hourly, many daily, a few weekly, and even monthly and annual events. Putting all these together actually helps to establish a “routine” to life that can assist the GM in creating those encounter situations that lead to adventure.

Here are the many I found:

  • Pension (Yearly) p. 31
  • Explorer’s Society (Every 2 months) p. 32
  • Ship Inspections (Upon Arrival) p. 49
  • Gain Skills (Weeks?) p. 57
  • Drug Effects (Days/Weeks/Months) p. 71
  • Fatigue (Hours) p. 97
  • Natural Healing (Daily) p. 98
  • Medical Care (Daily) p. 98
  • Passage (Weekly or By Jump) p. 106
  • Skim Fuel (Hours) p. 107
  • Salaries (Monthly) p. 108
  • Life Support (Monthly) p. 109
  • Port Fees (Weekly/Daily) p. 109
  • Routine Maintenance (Monthly) p. 109
  • Law Enforcement Encounters (by event) p. 113
  • Find Supplier (Days) p. 115
  • Resist Disease (Hours/Days/Weeks) p. 163+
  • Radiation Effects (Hours/Days/Weeks) p. 165
  • Starvation/Dehydration (Hours/Days) p. 169
  • Animal Encounters (multiple encounters Daily) p. 184
  • Social Encounters (As Needed/Daily/Weekly) p. 186+
    • Legal (Daily)
    • Random (Daily)
    • Patron (Weekly)
    • Rumor (Weekly)
  • Starship Encounters (Enter/Leave System) p. 192
  • Adventure Checklist – Weekly Event (Weekly) p. 202

Encounters are really where “situation meets adventure” happens, but the other temporal events can also create situations for adventure:

  • “What do you mean you can’t pay my salary this month?”
  • “I have radiation poisoning and may only have weeks to live.”
  • “Last time we skimmed fuel we got jumped by pirates!”

All of these events happen at set time intervals and can be points the GM uses to create a situation that leads to adventure.

I am working up a GM play aid that captures all these temporal events and encounters. I intend to keep it handy for use as the game clock ticks by. I want to use this same approach to events in time and encounters not only in Classic Traveller/Cepheus Engine games but to apply the same concept to all my RPG adventures, especially Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars Roleplaying Game.

Cepheus Engine System Reference Document – A Classic Era Science Fiction 2D6-Based Open Gaming System, By Jason “Flynn” Kemp. Copyright (c) 2016 Samardan Press.

#RPGThursday Retrospective – Ending My Second RPG Interregnum

While preparing this RPG retrospective series, I discovered that there were two significant gaps in time between my RPG purchases. The first interregnum was between 1986 and the mid-1990s. The second interregnum was from the late-1990s to 2005.

The first purchases after my second RPG interregnum also reflect a change in the RPG industry that I was slow to catch up on, but ultimately started me on a path of learning RPGs unlike I had ever experienced before. What I had missed during my second interregnum was the birth of Open Game Content, and the release of the Open Game License (OGL) in 2000 by Wizards of the Coast.

The OGL released, for public use, certain portions of RPG systems – the Open Game Content. I say “systems” because the OGL was initially intended to release for public use the underlying rules system, or “mechanics” of the game, and not settings.

I discovered this when in 2005 I purchased Prime Directive d20 (PD20). The cover clearly states that this is the “Core Rulebook.” What I missed was the (obvious) yellow text box on the back cover which stated:

Requires the use of the Third Edition Player’s Handbook (v 3.5) published by Wizards of the Coast. Compatible with all d20 rulebooks so GMs will have resources to create infinite new worlds to explore.

Well, that sucked. After being lured in by the “Core Rulebook” on the cover, I instead was hunting around for whatever these “d20 rulebooks” were. I found a seller in England named Mongoose Publishing that sold The Mongoose Modern Pocket Handbook. I think I was lured in by the publisher’s blurb on the backcover:

The Mongoose Modern Pocket Handbook is a simple guide to the world’s most popular Modern roleplaying game system. It contains exactly what a reader needs to play the game and nothing else.

With this guide to the intricacies of the Modern OGL rules set, Players and Games Masters can make use of any other setting or devise their own for a campaign that is uniquely theirs while still retaining the basic framework of the Modern OGL game. If it is a basic rule covering character creation, combat, equipment, vehicles, creatures or magic, it has a home in these pages.

Everything you need, in a pocket-sized edition with a pocket-sized price.

So I ordered one (and paid way too much in shipping – another costly lesson learned).

I am sure you already see my obvious mistake. First, I didn’t understand the d20 product line meaning I didn’t understand the difference between Third Edition and Modern rulebooks. Second, I was very confused when I tried to read the Modern Handbook. There were many rules, presented in a not-very-friendly manner, but no setting. I remember trying to make sense of the rules and being confused for days and days. I compounded my confusion by trying to play Prime Directive d20 using the Modern Handbook. Although the PD20 back cover claimed “compatible with all d20 rulebooks” the reality is the differences between Third Edition (v3.5) and Modern were enough to make play virtually unachievable for me. This was especially true since I was starting out with above-average confusion by not understanding d20 to begin with.

Prime Directive d20 started with a good fiction piece, which was interesting because it did NOT feature a Prime Team. This is emblematic of the entire book – it suffers from an identity crisis. In Chapter 3: Character Classes there are five “Adventure Party Formats” introduced:

  1. The Bridge Crew: Officers on Call
  2. Special Assignment: Ready for Anything
  3. Prime Team: The Best of the Best
  4. Fighter Pilots: Wild Dogfights, Wild Parties
  5. Freelancers: Have Phaser, Will Travel

The first is obviously Star Trek. Problem is, this is the Star Fleet Universe, with a recommended setting taking place right before the big General War kicks off. The second setting is the sort featured in the opening fiction; a team thrown together for a special mission. The third is the namesake of the system, but notes that characters start at 9th Level (so much for a beginner’s adventure). The fourth setting was likely an attempt to capitalize on the (then) successful Battlestar Galactica reimagining. The final setting, Freelancers, looked to be PD20′s version of Traveller. The greatest problem with PD20 is that the Third Edition (v3.5) rules don’t do a good job of portraying any of these tropes.

The Mongoose Modern Pocket Handbook I now know is actually a System Reference Document (SRD) and is not supposed to be a rulebook for playing an RPG. An SRD is the foundation used to construct an RPG rulebook. Problem was I tried to play using the SRD with no success at the time.

At this same time, I discovered a web site on an alternative history of the Luftwaffe named Luft ’46. This in turn led me to a comic book series, Luftwaffe 1946 by Ted Nomura. In a fortunate coincidence, I also somehow discovered DriveThruRPG. In my second-ever purchase from the site, I downloaded Luftwaffe: 1946 Role Playing Game.

Luftwaffe: 1946 Role Playing Game is not a complete RPG – it is a setting book like PD20. Unlike PD20, it used another rules set, the ACTION! SYSTEM. Now I was even more confused and more than a little bit upset. Why on Earth can I not get a “complete” game? Why do I have to keep buying a separate rulebook and setting book? I downloaded a free version of the ACTION! SYSTEM and tried to learn the game.

Luftwaffe: 1946 Role Playing Game tries to be an RPG homage to Luftwaffe 1946. A major part of the core setting is aircraft combat. This demands a strong air combat system. The problem is the ACTION! SYSTEM does NOT have a good vehicle combat system. Without a good fighter combat system, the existence of this entire game is questionable. It also didn’t help that in the introduction Ted Nomura gets upset that he cannot find good plastic model kits with accurate swastika decals. This makes him declare:

Being educated in America and thus thinking that we’re a free press society, I found the obvious censorship of history highly insulting to my intelligence. Thus, at the beginning of the early 1970’s, I made a more careful study of Nazi Germany and found out that their atrocities were not much worse than what any other major countries had done to their people and their neighbors throughout the centuries of warfare. Focusing only on a select few seemed not only unfair but inaccurate. – p. 7

After reading this, I put Luftwaffe: 1946 Role Playing Game on a back shelf. It wasn’t pulled out again until this retrospective series (and I think I am going to shred the printed copy and reuse the binder for another game).

After the Luftwaffe: 1946 failure, I looked around and found a setting book that I thought I liked, ACTION! CLASSICS The War of the Worlds Source Book. The cover of this book looked promising because it proudly proclaimed the book contained “Game stats for both Action! System and d20 System.” This would be great; if I didn’t like the ACTION! SYSTEM I could always go to d20.

The War of the Worlds Source Book starts out with H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds novel. The novel takes up the first 76 pages of the book. The book is only 101 pages long. This meant the actual game material was slim, and what was there was often repeated (ACTION! SYSTEM/d20 System). Given that I never really enjoyed the ACTION! SYSTEM or d20, I gave up on this setting.

What I didn’t realize then, but see now, is that the OGL had changed the RPG industry. The  OGL allowed rules sets to go public, and enabled many smaller publishers to publish their own settings. The RPG industry focus had turned from RPG rules to RPG settings.

Not all was bad at this time. Using DriveThruRPG I was able to buy books for older games that I had missed out on. Publishers like Far Future Enterprises sold CDs with older Traveller RPG collections. I eagerly picked these up and thoroughly enjoyed the rediscovery of these older classics and going back to my RPG roots from the late-1970s and 1980s. The future of RPGs was dead to me – I was not a d20 player and I didn’t want all those other new systems.

That was, until my next purchase.

Luftwaffe: 1946 title (c) 1996, 2001 Ted Nomura and Ben Dunn. All other material is (c) 1996, 2001 Antarctic Press. The Luftwaffe: 1946 and related material are used under license. Luftwaffe: 1946 Role Playing Game Copyright (c) 2003 Battlefield Press, Inc.

Action! Classics: The War of the Worlds Sourcebook copyright (c) 2003 by Gold Rush Games.

The Mongoose Modern Pocket Handbook is (c) 2004 Mongoose Publishing.

Prime Directive d20 is copyright (c) 2005 by Amarillo Design Bureau, Inc. “d20 System” and the “d20 System” logo are trademarks of Wizards of the Coast, Inc. and are used according to the terms of the d20 System License version 5.0. Elements of the Star Fleet Universe are property of Paramount Pictures Corporation and are used with their permission.

“The Traveller game in all forms is owned by Far Future Enterprises. Copyright 1977-2016 Far Future Enterprises.”