#Wargame Wednesday – Merrill’s Marauders (Decision Games) First Impressions

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Merrill's Marauders: Commandos in Burma 1943-1944, Decision Games, $12.95. Designed by Joseph Miranda. Part of the Commando-series of games. A Decision Games mini-series product which is intended to be introductory-level and playable in an hour or less. Comes with an 11"x17" mapboard, 40 counters, 4 mission cards, 14 event cards, a four-page series rulebook and two-pages of scenario instructions. Play time is rated at 1-2 hours, but this seems to be the time necessary for an entire four-mission campaign as an individual mission can take 30 min or less.

Merrill's Marauders is a solitaire game that covers commando missions behind enemy lines in Burma during World War II. The player is the Allied commandos while the game engine is the OPFOR (opposition force). The commando player has to enter the map area and recover objectives while avoiding ambushes and other patrolling Japanese units. The game comes with four "missions" that can be played separately or strung together to form a campaign. The Mission Cards specify the number of objectives and ambushes to be secretly placed, the mission objectives, how many "operations" (time) is allowed, the force level available to buy, and any leaders. During each operation a stack of units move and event cards are drawn to determine what happens next. Battles are a simple nd6 roll against a Battle Results Table and is bloody.

The rules and game mechanics for Merrill's Maraudersare easy and certainly meet the "introductory-level" criteria of a mini-series game. The map is extremely functional, with almost all the information needed to play on it. Once the rules are learned (not a very steep learning curve to achieve) between the map and the event cards almost all the information needed to play is present. The "Operations" mechanic which counts down the number of operations (actions) available to the commando player is a nice touch that adds a time-crunch element, and winning battles (gaining Operations Points) becomes a key part of the commando players strategy. Although only four missions are included, the variable setup ensures the few missions are not going to be identical, leading to increased replayability.

Although the rules are easy to learn, they also are the weakest part of the game. This is because more than a few of the series-standard rules are superseded by the scenario instructions and the differences can dramatically alter play. For instance, standard rule 16.0 EVENT CARDS specify that when a commando force ends its movement, an Event Card is drawn. If there is an objective marker in the space, one Event Card is drawn normally and implemented, then a second Event Card drawn and implemented. This goes hand-in-hand with 23.0 OBJECTIVE MARKERS which specifies that a marker is not revealed until AFTER the two events are played. However, scenario instruction 38.1 Objective Segments & Real Objectives are revealed before drawing an event card and if an Ambush no Event Card is drawn. Elsewhere, standard rule 22.0 KILLED IN ACTION (KIA) which scores panicked and eliminated units is totally changed by scenario instruction 39.9. This change is welcome, but even with this change the ability for the commando player to score the necessary KIA to win is extremely difficult to achieve.

Despite the rules challenges that require careful reading and cross-referencing the first few times thru, Merrill's Maraudersturns out to be a short, enjoyable game that really captures the flavor of commando actions behind enemy lines. Once the rules are understood, the game becomes a deeply narrative experience that can turn out to be quite immersive.

RockyMountainNavy Verdict: MUST PLAY

#WargameWednesday – Close to Home: Battle of Ox Hill

IMG_1759Living in the Mid-Atlantic region means we have many historical places from the Colonial, American Revolution, and American Civil War close at hand. This past weekend, we took a short trip to a very local battlefield. After the trip, I pulled out one of my latest gaming acquisitions, Chantilly: Jackson’s Missed Opportunity 1 September 1862 (Decision Games, 2013). As the Historical Background lays out:

The ensuing battle, misnamed Chantilly for a plantation several miles to the west, was a disjointed, inconclusive affray that petered out in a thunderstorm that evening. But it need not have been so. It must rank as one of the great “lost opportunities” of the war; had Jackson got onto Pope’s line of communication, the result might very well have been the destruction of an entire Union army.

My copy of Chantilly is part of the Mini Games series that comes in a ziplock bag.  As the DG site tells us:

The Mini Game Series provides a variety of introductory games that are designed to be played in about an hour. The eras covered are: 19th century, Ancient, WWII and Modern. Each game is an 11 x 17 inch map sheet, 40 counters and a rules sheet. The mini game series takes only minutes to learn and once one game is played, players can immediately play other scenarios with the same standard rules.

The rules for Chantilly are based on DG’s Musket & Saber Quick Play Mini Game System Rules (4 pages) with 2 pages of scenario exclusive rules.

After several rules run-thru and two plays, I must admit I am disappointed with the game.

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Game map covers an almost identical area – though in a much smaller format

Component-wise the game is fine, and at the $9.95 price point is a great value. The rules complexity are a bit above pure introductory-level. BGG rates the complexity for Chantilly at 1.67 out of 5; a rating I agree with.

It is also that very simplicity of the rules that gets the game in trouble. Chantilly obviously uses a cut-version of a larger rules set. This leads to several issues that make gameplay challenging and lessens the gaming experience.

The first item that jumped out to me is F. Lee’s Cavalry Brigade. This unit has a Combat Factor (CF) of (2) – that is – a 2 in parentheses. NOWHERE in the Game System or Scenario rules is this explained. Luckily the question was asked on BGG, and a blessed soul referenced the full-series rules for the answer (“A parenthesized CF is halved when attacking”).

The FLee cavalry counter also confused me because not only did it have the parentheses around the CF, but it didn’t have a Charge Factor as seen on the counter example in 9.1 Cavalry Units. As I was studying 9.0 Cavalry, I read through 9.3 Squares with mounting anger because there were no square markers in the countermix! It was not until you get to the end of scenario rule 12.2 The Scenario that you discover that all the rules study is for nought:

All standard rules apply except 9.0. Treat the lone calvary unit (FLee) like an infantry unit for all purposes. There are no charges or squares.

The next part of the game system that I am unsure of is the combat results. There are six possible combat results:

  • Ar/Dr = Retreat. All units either disrupt or retreat 1-3 hexes.
  • Ac/Dc = Retreat Check. If MC [Morale Check] failed, treat as Ar/Dr. If MC passed, apply parenthesized result.
  • Ax/Dx = Retreat or Loss. If MC passed, unit may take a loss. If MC failed, or if passed and player chooses, all units disrupted and retreat 1-3 hexes.
  • Ex = Exchange. Each side loses step.
  • NE = No Effect.

I’m not going to show the CRT here, but suffice it to say that outright killing a unit (Ex result) is very hard. Indeed, it appears on the CRT only as the parenthesized result of the Ac/Dc – which is a bit counterintuitive to me. Most units have a Morale Rating of 4, meaning they must roll a 4 or less to PASS their morale check. But in the case of the Ac/Dc result, “passing” your morale check is BAD (Step Loss) whereas “failing” your morale check is good (retreat).

One other way to kill a unit is by Standard Rule 7.8 Rout. Basically, if a retreating unit has an Unsafe Line of Retreat (buried in 7.6 Retreats & the SLR [Safe Line of Retreat]) then it routs per rule 7.8.

Even the victory conditions are confusing. The scenario rules for Chantilly have conditions for either a Confederate or Union Major Victory. Scenario rule 14.3 Minor Victory states, ‘If neither player wins a major victory, calculate the VP scored by each. The player with the larger total wins a minor victory.” So I went hunting for how to score VP. Scoring VP is found in the Standard rule 3.4 Winning the Game which states, in part, “Unless otherwise specified in the exclusive rules, each player scores one VP for each enemy unit or leader eliminated, two VP for each enemy unit or leader captured.”

Capturing a leader is found at the end of Standard rule 10.0 Leaders while captured units are buried (again) at the end of 7.6 Retreats & the SLR in the discussion of No Line of Retreat.

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Situation after Second Player (Union) Combat Phase Turn 5 – Ferrero’s Brigade of Reno’s 2nd Division gallantly holds off the Confederate onslaught. Poe’s brigade with two batteries of artillery has retreated out of the picture.

All these rules nuances I discovered over the course of several plays. Yes, the answers in most cases are in the rules – once you find them. In DG’s effort to “standardize” as much as possible, they actually created confusion with poorly cross-referenced or formatted rules. They are not alone in this problem, I pointed outs similar issues with newer games from GMT and C3I such as Plan Orange and South Pacific.

In Scenario rule 16.0 Designer’s Notes, Chris Perello points out:

There were three major design issues that needed to be addressed in this game. First was the omnipresent mud. That was accounted for by reducing the movement allowances for all units, dropping it to four instead of the system-norm of six.

Second was the need to slow the Confederates. If they retain full initiative throughout the game they will steamroll the Federals in the early going.

The “full initiative” reference is to Scenario rule 15.0 Confederate Initiative, which is a mechanic for determining each turn if the Confederates have full movement or half movement. If the result of a d6 roll is less than the turn number, the Confederates have full movement. This rule is needed because of Standard rule 4.3 March Movement which allows a unit that starts and remains at least two hexes away from an enemy unit the entire movement to DOUBLE its movement allowance (meaning that when the Confederates have half-movement, March Movement allows them full movement – got it?). This allows units to fly across the map at a rate faster than rush-hour traffic on I-66 in the same area today. I am not sure Chris actually met his design challenge. I might try a variation where rule 4.3 is suspended just to see what it’s impact is on play is.

All this seems to me a lot to think about and write about a very short and simple game. But that’s my point; what is a short and should be a simple game is actually needlessly complex. I feel that the designer and developer looked at the Battle of Chantilly (nee Ox Hill) and thought that with only a few small changes it could work. It does, to a point less than what they probably hoped. Like the actual battle, Chantilly is a game of lost opportunities because of disjointed rules.

 

#TSAO These Stars Are Ours! A setting for #CephesusEngine or #TravellerRPG

 

 

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Courtesy spacecockroach.blogspot.com
These Stars Are Ours!  (TSAO) is a tabletop RPG Sci-Fi setting for the Cepheus Engine or 2D6 OGL SCIFI (nee Traveller SRD). TSAO is a complete Alternate Traveller Universe (ATU) small-ship setting that offers rich background, interesting aliens, and many adventure seeds for the Referee. Though not without a few warts, TSAO shows the great potential of Cepheus Engine used in a setting beyond the classic Third Imperium.  TSAO may be the first setting to take full advantage of the Cepheus Engine rules from the ground up and joins Gypsy Knight Games The Clement Sector and Zozer Games Orbital 2100 as yet another example of the vibrant Cepheus Engine community of rules and settings.

 

 

The setting of TSAO is a logical outgrowth of 20th century UFO conspiracies:

Set in 2260 AD – two years after the Terrans took Keid and forced the Reticulan Empire to capitulate the book introduces the player characters to the immediate aftermath of the Terran victory in the Terran Liberation War against the mighty Reticulan Empire and its many thralls. For their part, the upstart Terrans, bolstered by their victory against their old masters, now move to become a power to be reckoned with in interstellar affairs. Against this background of espionage, maneuvering, and saber-rattling, and on the new interstellar frontiers, the player characters can forge a destiny of heroes or villains of the new United Terran Republic. (DriveThruRPG)

TSAO is delivered in a 209 page pdf (also now available in a POD option). This meaty setting is explained over six chapters and two appendixes.

 

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Courtesy spicapublishing.co.uk
Chapter 1 – The United Terran Republic provides much of the history and setting background. Included is not just a recap of events to date, but also many groups or factions or agencies that the player characters (PCs) could interact with. Psionics has a role in this setting. Given the assumed Tech Level (TL) of 11-12 (with some military at 13), TSAO (like Omer Golan-Joel’s earlier Outer Veil setting) is a high-tech but small-ship universe.

 

Chapter 2 – Aliens describes the humans neighbors, opponents, and allies(?). In the space of just a few pages many races are fully described and (again) are rich with adventure seeds and story hooks for development.

Chapter 3 – Characters and Careers is a great example of how to take the basic character generation system in Cepheus Engine and stretch it to showcase it’s full potential. PCs can be the default Humans or select from several alien races. Careers are taken from 13 civilian careers in Cephesus Engine or an from the 20 new ones in TSAO, including seven (7) alien “careers.”

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Courtesy spacecockroach.blogspot.com
Chapter 4 – Starships showcases alien saucers and Terra’s ships along with a few other alien constructs. Art is provided by the ever-dependable Ian Stead and others. Make sure to look at the 300-ton Terran Shaka-class Light Military Transport (and especially the Decommissioned Shaka-class Transport) for a not-to-subtle nod to Serenity and the Firefly-class.

Chapter 5 – Terran Borderlands is combination gazetteer and Referee’s Information. The worlds of Known Space is detailed, along with many story hooks and adventure seeds. The usual World Generation process from Cephesus Engine is expanded upon here with an Expanded Universal World Profile that adds a bit more detail but also a whole many more ideas that PCs or Referees can grab onto.

Chapter 6 – Patrons describes 12 Patrons that might engage the PCs. The chapter is not only a grouping of ready-made adventures, but also provides insight into the setting as viewed by the authors.

Appendix A – Terran News Agency Dispatches, February 2260 is a call back to the Traveller News Service snippets that were a staple of Classic Traveller and its successors. Again, these short news items can be the start of yet more adventures!

Appendix B – Sources of Inspiration, Literary and Otherwise is TSAO‘s Appendix N. I always look over these lists to see what inspirations the authors took and to see what I may want to add to my reading/viewing.

The last part of TSAO is an index. This is one of the best indexes I have ever seen in a book. However…the pdf is not cross-linked. This highlights some of my pet peeves with so many pdf products; page numbering and no linking. TSAO is paginated like most books, with page 1 being the interior title page. Unfortunately, this is “page 3” of the pdf, meaning if using your pdf page search you will always be three pages off from your target! The publisher could of avoided (or lessened the impact) of this issue if the Table of Contents (or even that great Index?) was linked.

Production quality is very good. Compared to Stellagama’s previous The Space Patrol I can see definite improvement. Get the linking and page numbering issues nailed and I will likely have nothing to complain about….

The authors call TSAO the first in the Visions of Empire (VoE) space opera settings. If TSAO is any indication, the VoE series will be settings rich in background using (and stretching) the Cepheus Engine rules to their finest.

 


These Stars Are Ours!  By Omer Golan-Joel, Richard Hazelwood, and Josh Peters. Stellagama Publishing, 2017.

#RPGThursday Retrospective – Prime Directive 1st Edition (Task Force Games, 1993)

In terms of my RPG history, I now refer to the the time between Traveller:2000 and Prime Directive (1st Ed) as my “RPG Interregnum.” Although there were seven years between he publishing dates of the two products, the reality is that I didn’t buy PD1 earlier than the 1994-5 timeframe (and possibly even later) after an interval of at least eight years. PD1, along with Traveller 4 (T4) and The Babylon Project were to be my only 1990’s RPG purchases.

Prime Directive (1st Edition) was the first official RPG for the Star Fleet Universe (SFU). The SFU is not “true Star Trek” and instead focused around Task Force Games’ flagship Star Fleet Battles. This meant the SFU was much more militaristic than the “official” Star Trek setting. PD1 reflected this difference, but at the same time tried to bridge it with, IMHO, only limited success.

PD1 starts off with a short story. For those familiar with the SFB support zine, Captain’s Log, the style is familiar. The story itself is a hostage rescue mission and, honestly, is a bit cheesy in dialogue.

The rules start off with an introduction to the SFU, important background material and probably very confusing to mainstream Trekkies that came in looking for Kirk and the Enterprise.

Character generation is an 11-step process that starts out with selection of race and recording initial characteristics. Each character is then assigned to a Service Division and gains associated “basic” skills. To this point, I was comfortable because chargen was very Classic Traveller (CT)-like. The next steps reflect the military aspects of the setting, with Seniority and Professional/Heroic Reputation being determined. I found it interesting that the designers worried about the impact of Seniority and ranks, to the point they added a sidebar note:

A VERY IMPORTANT NOTE TO PLAYERS

Prime Directive is a Role-Playing Game set in a military situation, and as such, the concepts of rank and chain of command are important to establish the “feel” of the Star Fleet setting. However, something to remember is that YOU ARE PLAYING THIS GAME TO HAVE FUN! After a hard week of class or at the office, the last thing that someone wants during a game session is to be ordered around by his “Superior Officer”. The point of rank and chain of command is to structure the relationships and responsibilities of characters, not to give one player the right to control every  situation, responding to every argument with the stock phrase, “Hey, who has the highest Seniority Rating, anyway?” No player character will every bring another player character up on charges of insubordination. (Of course, mouthing off to superior Non-Player Characters, like the Briefing Officer or the Ship’s Captain, is another matter entirely.) – p. 25

At this point, the PCs are very “stock” and not very different from one another save for some Service Division skills. The players can now breathe life into their characters by purchasing skills. Once complete, the final step is to derive characteristics. To assist in understanding, a comprehensive example is provided.

The next section is the core mechanic discussion. A basic Skill Task in PD1 requires the player to roll a number of d6 equal to the average of their Skill + Characteristic. A natural roll of 6 is rerolled with the reroll -1 ADDED to the original 6. (I think this was the first time I ran into the concept of “exploding” die rolls.) Each die roll is compared to a series of “Tricodes” for the skill attempted, which in turn give a Success Level (SL). To assist in understanding, the following (not so short) example is given:

For example: Peltier is tracking renegades across a wilderness hillside. His tricode for Tracking is, after all mods, a 3/5/9. Peltier rolls 5 dice and gets the following numbers: 1, 2, 3, 6, 11. [My note – that last roll is only possible with an exploding die] His roll of 1 and 2 do not meet the tricode for Minimal Success, and if they had been the best he rolled, then he would of Botched the task, probably with disastrous results. His roll of 3, however, DOES meet the tricode for Minimal Success, so he escapes the horrors of Botching. If this had been the best Peltier had rolled, then he would know that the renegades HAD been by that spot, but he would have no idea how long ago it had been nor any idea of the direction in which they had continued. But, his roll of 6 meets the tricode for Moderate Success, so he finds out even more. If these had been his best rolls, then Peltier would know that the renegades passed this way within the last hour and they were headed up the slope. However, Peltier is an expert tracker, and so it comes as no surprise that even in these difficult circumstances he manages to completely succeed in this task. His roll of 11 is well over the tricode of 9 that he needs for Complete success. With this level, he also learns that only TWO of the renegades passed by here, and that one of them is slightly wounded. Knowing this, he can follow the pair up the hill or back to track to (hopefully) find the spot where the group broke up and start to trail the others. – p. 39

The next section, Actions and Initiative, goes hand-in-hand with the core mechanic. PD1 asks players to determine a Level of Action, which is a test that results in a SL determining WHAT the player can do. Once the LoA has been determined, player determine Initiative, or the WHEN of the action. Finally, players and the GM must figure out the “Time in Combat” (TIC) or “Time out of Combat” (TOC) which tells them HOW LONG the action took.

At this point, PD1 tries to be more dramatic. With a COMPLETE success for the Level of Action test, the players can make a Complex Action.  As defined by the rules, a complex action allows for more dramatic choices:

A Complex Action is just that, a complex series of actions that can be considered as several linked simple actions. A Complex Action is anything that can reasonably be summed up in a simple phrase like: “I run up to the Klingon and kick the disruptor out of his hand.” or “I activate the (already armed and sequenced) self-destruct module and run to the transporter pad.” or “I grab a new power pack from the satchel and slap it into my phaser as I turn to face the buckling door.” The pro forma limit is ‘I do something’ and then ‘I do something else’ (usually while someone else stands by, astonished that you could get away with all that before they could react). These two actions do NOT necessarily have to be directly related, as do those in Simple action, although they could be if you wished.

A Complex Action lets you grab the Ambassador’s daughter and swing from the chandelier, sweeping just beyond the reach of the Orion Pirates below, to the safety of the balcony beyond or make two attacks on an opponent before he can react at all! All in all, Complex Actions let you get away with murder, completely baffling those poor slobs who are slogging along at Minimal or Simple LoAs. – p. 42

Actions and Initiative ends with another important sidebar:

IMPORTANT NOTE TO BOTH THE GM AND PLAYERS: The spirit of the Action and Initiative rules in Prime Directive are not meant to be a meticulously detailed series of minutely considered “war game moves”. Rather, the designers hope that the players (and the GMs) will paint their actions with a wider, more colorful brush. Instead of thinking: “Hmm, could an Olympic athlete REALLY do all that in four seconds,” you should think “Have my favorite SF/Adventure movies ever had someone doing this?” – p. 45

Skill are very combat-focused, as expected in this very militaristic setting.  I find it interesting that Leadership skills include what is these days are commonly called “social combat” and that Discipline-related skills is where the psionic skills are collected. Overall, there are 11 Skill areas with 85 skills!

The combat section is complicated; so complicated that it actually has two examples and an alternative combat system over 27 pages. Part of the combat section bloat is that it also includes weapons (commonly found in other RPGs in an equipment or ironmongry section). At its heart, combat is broken down into four steps: Time, Position, Attack, and Defend. The first combat example, 5.2, is presented in a highly narrative manner with little reference to actual die rolls. The second example, 5.27, is presented as an Advanced Combat Example which replays the first example but with all the die rolls included. Finally, and most interesting to me, is rule 5.28 SIMPLIFIED COMBAT SYSTEM:

The combat system in Prime Directive is often both intense and complex. There are a great many things which the players can do, and the rules must account for all of these. Veteran players of RPGs will easily adapt to the system, while new players may find it hard to deal with all at once.

To make the entire game more accessible to new players, we have included a simplified system for combat. The entire rulebook is written for the more intense Veterans Combat System (a term you will not find anywhere in the rules except on this page). The ‘Simplified Combat System’ or SCS is contained entirely on this one page of the rules, and the designers have chosen not to clutter the game with hundreds of references (one in virtually every rule) defining how that rule would work if the Simplified Combat System was in force. It will be obvious, in each case, what to do. – p 93

Buried within the SCS is one of the few narrative play elements found in this entire rules set. Simplification #6: HEROIC DAMAGE SURVIVAL, allows the players to spend one point of Heroic Reputation to reduce the damage in a Lethal attack to one point less than it takes to kill them outright. So intense is combat that Healing gets it own section.

Advancement and Awards is another interesting section, where players are evaluated and reviewed. Buried within this section is one other narrative element which allows character to use a Heroic Reputation feat to convert an ordinary result into an Extraordinary Success. I also like the section on Wheedling for points.

The rules finish off with an Equipment sections more racial backgrounds and NPCs, and two adventures. There is also a SFB scenario that (amazingly) can be linked to an RPG session:

(SD1.47) LINK TO PRIME DIRECTIVE: Do not use the SFB boarding party system. Simply transport the Prime Team (SD1.49) to the derelict using transporters and conduct actions inside the derelict as per the Prime Directive game system. Each “action” in Prime Directive consumes two impulse(s) in Star Fleet Battles. This scenario cannot be played without Prime Directive. – p. 172

For the even more masochistic, a variant rule was given:

(SD1.62) Have the Prime Team play their battle in a separate room, with the Game Master advising each group when it can proceed to the next action/impulse (keeping the two groups at the same time-point, with the Prime Team moving first in each case). Because of the jamming, there is no communication between the two groups except notification that the “beacon” has been activated. – p. 172

What I Thought of It Then – Given I was a huge SFB player, I really wanted to play Prime Directive in the SFU. However, I remember finding character generation to be a real chore, and the limited scope of play (the military setting with characters in Star Fleet) seemed to reduce adventure options. Most importantly, I couldn’t wrap my head around the whole task resolution system of nD6 versus a Tricode. Finally, I totally missed the Simplified Combat System and instead tried to make sense out of the Veteran Combat System, even as I struggled with the core mechanic or how Levels of Action, Initiative, and Time interacted.

What I Think of It Now – These days I pay a lot more attention to the core mechanic and actually study them. Today I see, and understand, the PD1 task resolution system. I can see how the designers tried to make die rolls determine a Success Level. I now understand how Level of Action is the WHAT can be done, Initiative is WHEN the action happens, and Time is HOW LONG the action takes. With this understanding, I can better grasp the Veterans Combat System. At the same time, I now see (and prefer) the alternative Simplified Combat System.

That said, the Tricode approach is a hot mess. Each skill has a unique tricode demanding it be noted or easily referenced. This in turn demands a detailed character sheet clearly noting Characteristics and Skills and nD6 to roll and Tricodes. The GM needs easy access to the many Tricodes and numerous modifiers and…well, I think you get the point.

These days I also prefer to have more narrative elements in my RPG, and in that way PD1 is weak. While Level of Action determines WHAT can be done the player influence is subject to the whims of  die rolls (i.e. less player agency). Indeed, there are only a few areas where player agency is given any attention, and those usually revolve around a very limited use of the Heroic Reputation points. Heroic Reputation could of been PD1‘s game currency, but the designers don’t take the concept to the natural limits of that thought.

From an RPG-perspective, I give Prime Directive (1st Edition) Totally Subjective Game Rating (Scale of 1-5):

  • System Crunch = 4 (Crunchy, especially for combat)
  • Simulationist = 3 (Wants to be dramatic, but rules don’t often support)
  • Narrativism = 2 (Few rules support narrative play)

Prime Directive (1st Edition), Copyright (c) 1993, Task Force Games.

#ClementSector : The Rules #RPG

Clement Sector: The Rules – An Alternate Cepheus Engine Universe; Watts, Johnson, and Kemp; Gypsy Knights Games, 2016. PDF $14.99 (accessed 22 Oct 2016)

Clement Sector: The Rules (CSTR) is Gypsy Knights Games rules set for playing in their Clement Sector setting. CSTR is an Open Game License (OGL)-based set of rules deriving from Jason “Flynn” Kemp’s Samardan Press Cepheus Engine System Reference Document. CSTR gives referees and players a complete Cepheus Engine-based rules set tailored for the unique aspects of the Clement Sector Setting.

CSTR is a 217-page product loosely organized in a similar fashion to the Cepheus Engine System Reference Document.  The first section, The Basics, introduces the now-familiar 2D6 classic sci-fi task resolution system of roll 2D6>8. In a difference from Cepheus Engine, CSTR defines a natural roll of 12 as an “Exceptional Success” and a natural role of 2 as an “Exceptional Failure.” This can be a bit confusing because at the same time the usual Cepheus Engine “Effect” definitions of “Exceptional Success” and “Exceptional Failure” are also retained.

Character generation is laid out in the next section with an extensive 26-step checklist. In another break from strictly following Cepheus Engine, characteristics are generated by rolling 3d6 and keeping the best two die. Chargen in CSTR is of the expanded kind found in Mercenary or High Guard of the older Mongoose Traveller 1st Edition. The result is a more robust character with more skills than a comparable one generated using solely Cepheus Engine. Setting-tailored details are also here, such as Aging (Clement Sector postulates extended human lifespans) and a tailored skill list and cascade. To assist in understanding chargen, an extensive (5+page) example is given. What is NOT provided in CSTR are the career tables. For Clement Sector careers, CSTR calls for the use of a second product, the Clement Sector Core Setting Book Second Edition.

The Equipment section includes robots and other vehicles. These can be a bit harder to understand because nowhere in CSTR nor Cepheus Engine is vehicle construction defined or otherwise given. The OGL Traveller Vehicle Handbook SRD does exist (being released in 2008 along with the base Traveller SRD) but Cepheus Engine and CSTR avoid going into that area. The lack of fully defined vehicle rules does not make the game unplayable, but does limit the expandability of this section.

Personal Combat is very extensive. As envisioned by the setting designers, personal and vehicle combat is a major aspect of the Clement Sector setting and as a result the combat rules are fully fleshed out.

Space Travel in earlier generations of rules would be known as Spacecraft Operations; here the unique FTL drive of the setting, the Zimm Drive, is explained. There is a very nice rule included for Characters and the Law which adds detail for characters encountering law enforcement as well as arrest and sentencing. Trade and Commerce is relatively unchanged from Cepheus Engine and focuses on speculative trading, another core component of the Clement Sector setting.

Space Combat is another extensive section. Technically composed of three major rules sections, the first (basic) Space Combat is the CSTR version of Classic Traveller Adventure-class ship combat with its focus on characters. The second section, Advanced Space Combat, is the CSTR version of Mongoose Traveller 1st Edition High Guard for Capital ships. The third section is an Appendix that adds setting-specific rules unique to the Clement Sector, most importantly a Railgun Spinal Mount.

Like character generation, the Space Travel and Space Combat is notable for what once again is NOT included in CSTR. For ship construction (small craft, Adventure-class, and Capital ships) CSTR directs you to the Clement Sector book The Anderson & Felix Guide to Naval Architecture Second Edition.

Environments and Hazards is a very straight-forward port of Cepheus Engine. Worlds provides the rules for generating the Universal World Profile (UWP) but, given that much of the Clement Sector setting is already defined, CSTR directs readers to the Subsector-series of books (like Subsector Sourcebook 1: Cascadia 2nd Edition). Planetary Encounters are detailed, though Patron Encounters CSTR recommends the 21 Plots-series of books (starting off with 21 Plots 2nd Edition). Similar, Starship Encounters has very generic ship descriptions, but for more details it is recommended to look at the Ships of the Clement Sector-series (like Ships of the Clement Sector 13: Strikemaster Class Brig). CSTR concludes with Refereeing the Game.

Art throughout CSTR appears to have been taken from previous Clement Sector publications. Especially notable is the ship art by Ian Stead. Character art is what I term “CGI poser” and fortunately avoids being too cartoonish; instead it seems to communicate the setting as envisioned by the authors in a fairly effective manner.

Although CSTR has an long Table of Contents, it lacks an Index. The pdf version is also not bookmarked, making someone like myself dependent on my tablet reader search function. I also wish that Skill or Task definitions were consistently called out. For instance, matching velocity and boarding a hostile ship (a highly likely event in the Pirate-infested Clement Sector) is communicated in the rules as follows:

If the enemy ship is still moving, then the prospective boarders must match the target’s velocity and dock with it (a Difficult (-2) Pilot task), …. (p. 106)

This could alternatively be formatted – and more easily recognized – using the Task Description Format (p. 43) as something like:

Match Velocities and Dock with Hostile Ship. Pilot, Dexterity, 1d6 minutes, Difficult (-2).

I found it interesting that at least one setting-specific alteration to Cepheus Engine was not included in CSTR. Given Clement Sector has no nobility structure, the Social characteristic is used to reflect wealth and class. Tailored rules are found in the Clement Sector Core Setting Book on p. 195. Whereas setting-distinctive rules like Aging and the Zimm Drive were included in CSTR (as well as the Core Setting Book), the equally setting-distinctive SOC and Wealth rules were not included. Was this a simple oversight or clever marketing plan?

Clement Sector: The Rules accomplishes what it sets out to do; provide a setting-tailored version of Cepheus Engine to maximize play in the Clement Sector setting. Unfortunately, it is not a “one-stop” collection, needing to be expanded by the Clement Sector Core Setting Book for character generation and the Anderson & Felix Guide to Naval Architecture for ship construction. To help referees and players, Gypsy Knight Games offers a Core Bundle of pdf’s for $38.37 on drivethrurpg.com which includes the three necessary books along with the Introduction to the Clement Sector (also available as a free separate download and a great intro overview of the Clement Sector setting – well worth the look!). This is a very good deal compared to Mongoose Traveller Second Edition. To get the equivalent in rules material in Mongoose Traveller Second Edition one needs to buy the Core Rulebook (pdf $29.99) and High Guard (pdf $29.99). But this still leaves you without any “setting.” To get something similar to the Clement Sector Core Setting Book one might have to invest in a sourcebook for the Spinward Marches – once it becomes available.

Can one play in Clement Sector without CSTR? You certainly could use the Cepheus Engine System Reference Document or the soon-to-be out-of-print Mongoose Traveller 1st Edition rules in place of CSTR. The disadvantage to that approach is that one loses out on the collection of setting-tailored rules CSTR provides; instead you would have to constantly be making home-brew adjustments to fit rules to setting. To me, it is far easier to get the items in the Clement Sector Core Bundle and start adventuring!

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Clement Sector: The Rules; Copyright (c) 2016 Gypsy Knights Games.

Cepheus Engine: A Classic Era Science Fiction 2D6-Based Open Game System. Copyright (c) 2016 Samardan Press.

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

#WargameWednesday “The Great Pacific War”

The Great Pacific War 1940-1944 by Don Baumgartner (Self Published, ISBN 9781493580569); Middletown, DE; Printed 15 May 2016.

As a long-time fan of the Admiralty Trilogy series of naval wargames, I religiously read The Naval SITREP. Issue #50 (April 2016) included a small half-page review of The Great Pacific War 1940-1944. Though not very well marketed as such, this is definitely an alternate history book. For a naval wargamer, it can be a sourcebook for scenarios or campaign inspiration.

The major historical point of departure is the death of Hitler during the Munich Crisis of 1939. Upon his death, the path towards war in Europe halts, allowing the author to explore a “what if” situation where the British Empire and Japan instead clash in the Far East. The story of these titanic naval battles are laid out in the book and each battle can easily be converted into a tactical scenario and gamed out.

Style-wise, the book could use a good editor and I encourage the author to get help laying the book out properly. Font selection should be reviewed because in my copy, all the 10’s digits are rendered as the letter “I” meaning we get “I4” guns. The maps could also use some work for they lack consistency in appearance or even orientation. Finally, tables and photos could use layout help.

Alternate history is hard. It is very easy to take historical reality, file off some serial numbers, rearrange letters, and say you have an alternate history (I’m looking at you, Mr. Turtledove. Naming the tank commander Morrel instead of Rommel? Really!) The problem in this book is that not enough changes. The author takes historical battles, moves them to to a different location (though often not that far from the original) and drops in a different set of combatants. Without needing to look too close between the lines, one can find the battles of Coral Sea, Midway, and night actions around The Slot off Guadalcanal. The result are battles not unlike what historically happened, but with the British generally substituted for the Americans.

It is easy to find a copy of Royal Navy Strategy in the Far East 1919-1939: Preparing for War Against Japan by Andrew Field (I used my public library privileges to search online databases and get my copy). Field lays out how the British thought they were going to fight, not how the Americans and Japanese eventually duked it out. There is enough difference between Field and Baumgartner that I (reluctantly) have to say that The Great Pacific War missed a golden opportunity. The British view of naval airpower was different than the US or Japan (for instance, see Geoffrey Till, “Adopting the aircraft carrier: The British, American, and Japanese case studies” in Military Innovation in the Interwar Period). Exploring those differences are what I find really intriguing and the stuff that makes for interesting games. Unfortunately, Baumgartner’s  The Great Pacific War does not delve down into this form of “what if.”

Is The Great Pacific War worth purchasing? For a serious naval wargamer its probably worth it, if for no other reason than scenario inspiration. The background and orders of battle would make good material for a convention game. But if one really wants to explore the “what if” of the British and Japanese fighting it out at sea, it may be better to look elsewhere.

#Orbital2100 RPG – Hard Sci-Fi RPG for The Expanse?

Orbital 2100: A Solar System Setting Using the Cepheus Game Engine by Paul Elliott at Zozer Games is the “second edition” of Orbital but now based on the Open Game Content Cepheus Engine System Reference Document vice the Mongoose Traveller first edition rules. Coming in at 239-pages, Orbital 2100 provides a more hard sci-fi setting within our Solar System around the year 2100. According to the publisher’s blurb:

Orbital is a science fiction setting for Traveller with a fairly realistic (TL 9) feel that is set within our own solar system. The Earth is locked in a Cold War with the people of Luna. Both face off, 400,000 km apart, threatening mutual annihilation whilst they compete to colonise the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Older colonies such as Mars and Mercury are independent and caught up in this struggle for solar system supremacy. Spacecraft use nuclear thermal rockets and create gravity by spinning pods or centrifuges, this is spaceflight as envisaged today!

What I think Mr. Elliott really means to say, to avoid legal troubles, is that Orbital is a science fiction setting for the Cepheus Engine. Orbital 2100 attempts to update the original material that used the Mongoose Traveller first edition rules. No longer a legal option, to avoid intruding on Mongoose Traveller’s second edition Closed Gaming Content and Product Identity, Orbital 2100 is based on the Cepheus Engine.

With Cepheus Engine providing the game rules, Orbital 2100 focuses on the setting. The first three chapters; The Situation, The Cold War, and Organisations provide a great deal of background and sets the stage for player adventure.

Character Creation follows the Cepheus Engine which allows this small section to focus on the differences in chargen from Cepheus. For instance, a new definition of Social Standing is introduced as well as new Background Skills. At this point, players “select a campaign” of which there are five. Depending on the campaign selected, different careers are recommended. There are no new career paths presented in Orbital 2100; rather, equivalent careers are mapped to Cepheus Engine careers. Other changes include a slightly modified Skills Cascade list, unique Military & Spacer Ranks, and modified Mustering Out process. The later is an interesting wrinkle to long-time Traveller RPG players because Orbital 2100 does not use the “traditional” end chargen and start adventuring. Instead:

In a typical game, characters must muster out before the game begins. In Orbital, it is more likely that characters will still be in employment within their chosen career. Player’s may finish character generation at any desired point and have their characters join the game, although an aging crisis or some events may also indicate a character has left the character generation process and begun the game. Orbital 2100, p. 35

Being set in 2100, the governing tech is generally TL 9 (with TL 11 in computing and electronics). There is no anti-gravity or jump drive. Trips are limited to inside the solar system using Nuclear Thermal Rockets and spin habitats. The next chapter, Spacecraft Design, introduces three classes of spacecraft that follow these setting restrictions. Deep Space Vehicles (DSV) are analogous to “starships”(100 tons or larger)  in Cepheus whereas Orbital Vehicles are this settings “small craft” (under 100 tons). The added vehicle class is Launch Vehicles (100 tons or less using regular chemical rockets. (Orbital 2100, p. 37). Although Cepheus Engine provides rules for building up to 5000 tons, the Orbital 2100 limit is 2000 tons (p. 60). Orbital 2100 does introduce an alternative drive, the TL 10 Fusion Drive (or Nuclear Pulse Fusion Drive – NPF p. 61). This vastly more efficient drive can make ships more akin to those seen in the TV series The Expanse.

Operating Spacecraft generally follows the Cepheus Engine rules with the greatest exception being travel time within the Solar System. Without getting too scientific, Orbital 2100 uses an orbital racetrack for travel between the inner planets and easy tables to assist in computation of travel times (p. 71). Fuel is also treated much differently, being defined in terms of “Burns” (p. 73) Bottom Line – The Expanse “Flip and Burn” is rare in Orbital 2100. Maintenance is also treated differently, as well as trade revenue. Setting-specific Encounter tables and updated Space Combat rules also are found here (remember – Trajectory is King! – p. 77).

The next chapter, Hardware, properly focuses first on Space Suits. Rovers, Orbital 2100’s version of vehicles, area also here but no rules for their design/construction are presented (nor are they found in Cepheus Engine). Computers are also redefined, and a section of Orbital and Launch Vehicles given. These Launch Vehicles go beyond chemical rockets by adding items like a Mass Driver Catapult or other alternate launch systems. Background and stats for common DSVs are also presented, as well as modular space stations.

Orbital Society is more setting background looking at Law Enforcement, Art, Colonies and the like, background on life aboard a DSV, various Treaties and Regulations and the Earth Orbit Network. There are many adventure seeds buried within these pages!

Working in Space is the Orbital 2100 version of the Environments & Hazards section of Cepheus Engine. The most interesting part to me was “Ways to Die in Space.” There are also rules for Astroid Mining found here as well as a basic outline of how to set up an outpost.

Worlds breaks from the Cepheus Engine design system and instead presents the planets and moons of the Solar System in UWP format. The real gems are found in  the extensive flavor text. Again, lots of great adventure seeds are found here.

Running Orbital is in effect the Referee’s section. I found this section a bit weak. It starts out with four different campaign types, seemingly ignoring the fifth one found in the character generation “select a campaign” at the beginning of the book. This chapter also introduces Secret Agendas and Status, character concepts that I strongly believe should be included in the character generation chapter and not buried here (p. 218-221). The section ends with a look at Aliens (again, nice adventure seeds).

Resources is the Orbital 2100 version of Appendix N; the inspirations for the setting. Good movie or reading list material here, although I can’t believe Paul didn’t mention  Atomic Rockets or the Encyclopedia Astronautica!

Overall, this is a good setting. I have always liked playing in a grittier, harder sci-fi setting like Orbital. I really appreciate the changes Mr. Elliott makes from the Cepheus Engine basic rules. If I have a criticism, it is that I wish Zozer Games had taken the opportunity to relook at the layout of the book and move some items around (especially Secret Agendas and Status) to make these distinguishing character features more prominent and not bury them near the end of the product.

If one is looking for a 2d6-based science fiction setting that can be adapted for The Expanse, Orbital 2100 is a very close fit. To avoid legal entanglements Mr. Elliott is obviously very careful with references to The Expanse with only three mentions in the entire book (one of which is The Expanse entry in Resources). The Expanse has its own spacecraft technology and combat vision, best shown in the episode “CQB”, but a moderately resourceful referee can probably make the adjustments necessary to capture an Expanse-like narrative. At the very least the Orbital 2100 spacecraft design sequence can make DSV’s with NPF in a tail-sitter configuration, and Mag Boots are found on p. 86!

Orbital 2100: A Solar System Setting for the Cepheus Engine Game. Copyright (c) 2016 Samardan Press, Author Jason “Flynn” Kemp.

Cepheus Engine: A Classic Era Science Fiction 2D6-Based Open Gaming System. Copyright (c) 2016 Samardan Press.

“The Traveller game in all forms is owned by Far Future Enterprises. Copyright 1977-2015 Far Future Enterprises.”