#RPGThursday – My new Top 10 RPG (March 2017)

I was updating my RPGGeek collection and noticed that my Top 10 was way out of date. Made me start thinking again about which games I like and why.

#10 – Star Wars: Edge of the Empire

pic1545989_mdAt first I was confused by all those fancy dice with their crazy symbols. Now I see this system as one of the best matches of narrative gameplay and setting. I don’t see any other way to play a cinematic science fiction adventure. The nearly-identical Age of Rebellion and Force and Destiny round out the trilogy of adventure just like the original trilogy of movies did. Although low on my list, I am the GM in a campaign for the RockyMountainNavy Boys using this system.

#9 – Mindjammer: The Roleplaying Game (Second Edition)

pic1972069_tI always thought I would not enjoy transhumanism settings in my sci-fi RPG adventuring. At least, that was until I found the FATE Core-driven Mindjammer. Another exploration into narrative-driven RPG systems. (Avoid the Mongoose Traveller version.)

#8 – Traveller5

pic1550426_tMore a guilty pleasure than a game I play. Many people deride the rules but this is my go-to version of Traveller when I want to do some hardcore setting creation. Actually, as long as one avoids Melee Combat the rules hold up surprisingly well. It’s a shame this one gets so much bad press, the game is actually very good – its the bad reputation the first rulebook got that I think makes people stay away.

#7 – Firefly Roleplaying Game

pic1978226_tDriven by the Cortex Plus system, this is another game that shows my tilt towards more narrative-driven games. The setting is also in keeping with the Original Traveller Universe (and not all that far from Edge of the Empire either). The production quality of the books are so shiny!

#6 – FATE Accelerated

pic2026320_tStrictly rules, this slimmed down version of FATE Core is the best rules set I have found to introduce new players to narrative RPG gaming. Some people accuse this game of being too simple; I disagree and say it is the ultimate “rules-lite” system.

#5 – Atomic Robo

pic2005630_tAtomic Robo is a fine example of what happens when authors and game designers are of the same mind. The rulebook is one of the best I have ever seen, effortlessly taking source content and marrying it to game system and examples. The Brainstorming Rules are absolutely essential to ANY narrative-driven game played.

#4 – James Bond 007

pic532310_tGoing old-school here, but James Bond 007 has stood the test of time. The Chase rules, where one bids for initiative is very cinematic. I now recognize that this was the first RPG I played that had a Game Economy in the form of Hero Points. There is also the best-ever Example of Play which puts iconic scenes from the movie Goldfinger opposite game play.

#3 – Cepheus Engine System

pic3217788_tCepheus Engine is the modern 2d6 Sci-Fi RPG system that is the natural evolution of Classic Traveller. Except this one uses the Open Game License and not Mongoose Traveller’s much more restrictive legal obstacles to third-party publishing. Though a youngster, there are several great settings that take advantage of they rules including the awesome The Clement Sector, Orbital 2100, and the brand-new These Stars are Ours!

#2 – Diaspora

pic536195_tDiaspora uses the older FATE 3.0 engine, and could probably use an update to FATE Core. But the designer’s don’t have to be in a rush because Diaspora is a great game as-is. Occasionally called the Traveller version of FATE, I love it for many of the same reasons I love Traveller; it is a sci-fi adventure RPG with moderate rules overhead. The Space Combat rules are a unique take on vector-combat using range bands (and should be retrofitted to Classic Traveller).

#1 – Classic Traveller

45b96a0a8845ed78b2958bc87f1b6b58_largeIt was 1979 that I first discovered roleplaying games, and my gateway game was the three Little Black Books of Traveller. Who can ever forget the simple text on the box cover:

“This is Free Trader Beowulf, calling anyone…Mayday, Mayday…we are under attack…main drive is gone…turret number one not responding…Mayday…losing cabin pressure fast…calling anyone…please help…This is Free Trader Beowulf…Mayday….”

Now known as Classic Traveller, the rules are still a model of “complex simplicity.” Complex in that all the tools for making your own adventure are there (there is no default setting or Third Imperium in the original LBBs) and simple in terms of rules. Maybe a bit too simple, as shown by the modern rules version in Cepheus Engine. It really doesn’t matter to me what today’s version is called, Classic Traveller will always be the one dearest to my heart.

All images courtesy RPGGeek

#Wargame Retroactive – Mayday (Traveller Game 1, Series 120, GDW 1983)

pic900819_mdWhile I’m waiting for my Squadron Strike: Traveller Kickstarter to deliver, I went back to my first vector movement starship combat game. The game is Mayday from the Classic Traveller RPG-universe. I have the third edition GDW flat box, copyright 1983, with the Series 120 rulebook copyright 1978 and 1980. A Series 120 game was supposed to be playable in under two hours. The back of the box taught me what mayday means and why it may still matter in the future:


In the earliest days of radio, a standard distress call was established using the international language of the day. In French, the simple statement help me was expressed m’ai dez. English-speaking radio operators pronounced and spelled the word as mayday. Since then, the word has become as accepted as its Morse code predecessor S.O.S.

In the future, it is likely that monitoring stations will receive the same call from the depths of interplanetary space, faintly repeating a position and a single word, mayday.

Mayday is a science fiction game of small spacecraft in danger, distress, and ship-to-ship combat. The ships are out-fitted by each player with a variety of laser weapons, missiles, defensive systems, and computer packages. Using realistic vector movement, players maneuver their ships against each other on a hexagonal grid. Scenarios include The Grand Prix, The Attack, Piracy, Battle, and Smuggling.

Mayday is played “using realistic vector movement and intriguing combat systems….” Recently, I closely looked through the short (15 page), digest-size rulebook and was struck by both how simple the game was, and yet how much detail and universe-building was contained within.

A Small-Ship Universe

pic514041_mdMayday was also marketed as Traveller Game 1. Mayday took Traveller Book 2 Starships and brought it into a hex and counter setting. What struck me looking through the book is that Mayday is firmly in the “small ship Traveller universe.” Section 8. Ships provides the following starships:

  • Scout (100 ton)
  • Courier (100 ton)
  • Escort (100 ton)
  • Free Trader (200 ton)
  • Yacht (200 ton)
  • Transport (400 ton)
  • Armed Merchant (400 ton)
  • Destroyer (400 ton)
  • Colonial Cruiser (800 ton)
  • Corsair (400 ton)

Small craft are also fuel-limited in Mayday. The Fighter is rated “4G12” meaning it has a maximum acceleration of 4G in a turn, and cannot make more that a total of 12G of acceleration/deceleration before running out of fuel.

Vectoring About

Mayday is the game the taught me what vector movement is. Each starship, small craft, or missile has three counters; the past position, the present position, and the future position. The use of these three counters allows one to readily see the vector movement of the combatants. This easy vector movement system is what I had always focused upon and I didn’t really pay attention to the combat.

Lasers and Missiles Oh My!

In the Mayday version of the Traveller universe there are basically two offensive weapons; Lasers and Missiles. Of the two, the Laser is the most common starship and small craft weapon. However, a close analysis of the Attack Table and Damage Table reveals it is actually not the best weapon. Without consideration of any modifiers, a Laser will hit a starship 58% of the time, whereas a Missile will hit 83% of the time. Against small craft, the chances are 42% for Lasers and 58% for Missiles.

pic516813_mdLasers are also very close-range weapons realistically effective out to no more than 5 hexes (or 5 light seconds). This is because Laser Fire has a -1 Die Modifier (DM) for each hex of range. [Interestingly, Mayday page 12 references Traveller Book 5: High Guard and its fleet combat rules. The Mayday rules state that ships with matched courses (same hex, course, speed) are at “boarding range.” Short range is within 5 hexes (5 light seconds). Long range is beyond 5 hexes, but less than 15. Ships beyond 15 hexes/15 light seconds range are “out of range” and cannot fire.]

The damage potential of a Laser versus a Missile is also dramatically different. If a “hit” is achieved a Laser gets one roll on the Damage Table whereas a Missile gets two rolls if it has a proximity fuse or three rolls (!) if it uses contact detonation. This dramatic difference in damage potential finally brought home to me, more than any number of damage dice, the difference in the power of these two weapons systems in Traveller. It also vividly showed me why Missiles are the weapon of choice for starship combat at the mid-tech levels of Traveller.

Computing Power

Many people criticize the assumptions Traveller made when it came to computers. Marc Miller and company missed with their prediction of the computer revolution. For myself I tend to ignore the inconsistencies with our reality and try to play the game. In the case of starship combat, I think the problems are not as dire as some make them out to be. Instead, I try to play the game using the rules as written to see what the designers were trying to communicate.

In Mayday, like Book 2, computers are actually a key part of ship-to-ship combat. This is because Traveller computers are limited. For example, a Model/1 computer has a “CPU” of 2 and “Storage” of 4. What does this mean? It means that the ship can “load” programs taking up space equal to “Storage” and can “run” programs in a given phase of the turn with sizes the “CPU” can support.

Take a typical Free Trader with a Model/1 computer. According to the ship description, the available computer programs (and size) are:

  • Target 1, Launch 1, Gunner Interact 1, Auto/Evade 1, Return Fire 1, Anti-Missle 2, Maneuver 1,  Jump-1 1, Navigation 1.

No more than 6 “spaces” of programs can be loaded. As you can hopefully see, not all the programs can be “loaded” at once. Thus, the crew must make a decision.

  • Target is needed to shoot, unless one wants a -4 DM for “manual control”
  • Maneuver is needed to change course/speed.
  • Launch is needed to fire missiles…or a small craft
  • Gunner Interact allows characters to use their Gunnery skill (one of the few connections between Mayday and the Traveller RPG)
  • Auto/Evade makes you harder to hit, but cannot be run with the Maneuver program
  • Return Fire must be used with Target and allows ships to fire at ships/craft that fired at them first
  • Anti-Missile is used for point defense against impacting missiles
  • Jump is needed to activate the FTL (hyperspace) drive…useful to escape
  • Navigation is needed to compute the hyperspace jump

There are other programs available, such as Predict (positive DM to hit), Selective (ability to target specific systems), and Maneuver/Evade (harder to hit but less maneuver capability).

Making sure you have the right program available at the right time is crucial for combat in Mayday. For many years I ignored this section and just played with the Simplified Computer Rule:

Any activity may be performed, without regard  to computer program requirements. The size of the ship’s computer is used as an attack DM for lasers (computer model 1 gives a DM of +1) and as a defense DM when attacked by lasers. DMs for range, sand effects, manual control, and anti-missile fire still apply, but no others do. This simplified rule allows concentration on movement and basic combat. 6. Computer Programming (p. 9)

Simply Complex

Mayday is what I call a “simply complex” game. The rules are simple, from easy vector movement to a straight-forward combat system. Taking into account the computer rules really does make this game “intriguing” like the rulebook claims, and that makes it complex in that the choices one makes are relevant, interesting, and impactful. I also appreciate the insight this simple game gives me into the universe building that Marc Miller and friends started 40 years ago.

Mayday is currently rated 5.8 on BoardGameGeek. I personally rated it a 7 (Good – Usually willing to play) back in 2008 when I think I was updating my collection. Given my more recent appreciation for the game, I think it deserves a rating increase to 7.5.



#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.”


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 – Marc Miller’s Traveller (Imperium Games, Inc., 1996)

The 1990’s was a very dark time of my RPG history. I only bought three games in the entire decade, all of them science fiction-based. Prime Directive 1st Edition was the first and Marc Miller’s Traveller 4th Edition (T4) the second. Later I added The Babylon Project.

I had been a longtime Traveller player using the (now) Classic Traveller (CT) system from the late 1970’s and 1980’s. I had stopped buying RPGs in 1986, and missed out on MegaTraveller (MT) in 1987 and Traveller: The New Era (TNE) in 1992. As such, I missed just how much Traveller changed, with each edition not only using a different core mechanic but also covering a different milieu.

In the first section, The History of Traveller, Kenneth E. Whitman Jr. (now the infamous Ken Whitman) relates the five goals Marc Miller has for this new, 20th anniversary edition:

  1. A return to the similar structure of Classic Traveller while allowing for multiple levels of complexity depending on the needs and interests of individual players and referees.

  2. The production of a game design that encourages and promotes the fun of playing an enjoyable, exciting background.

  3. The opening of multiple eras or milieus to facilitate playing the Traveller science-fiction game system throughout the span of history, from 300,000 BC to 5,000 years in the future.

  4. Remaining consistent with previous editions in regards to historical events and game system results. Previous history as provided in any edition of Traveller stays largely the same in this edition, with certain details clarified or re-stated for consistency.

  5. Explicitly stating a standard of quality that promotes wholesome adventure and eliminates sexually-flavored art or content, unacceptable or vulgar language, and gratuitous, unnecessary violence. – p. 5

I don’t remember ever reading #5 before, and looking back in the mid-1990’s I apparently was blissfully unaware of whatever controversy this relates to.

The next section of T4, The Foundations of the Traveller Universe, lays out the themes of the setting background. I find it interesting that three types of players are addressed:

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

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

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

I think most outsiders commonly see Traveller RPG players as only System Engineers!

After the obligatory “what is roleplaying” section, the book moves to character generation. In T4, there is virtually no difference in the character generation process from the CT-era. In keeping with goal #1, there are only 10 careers presented (an 11th, Psionisist, appears later).

Skills presents a very familiar list of skills and skill cascades along with Default (Level-0) Skills. I think this was the first time I recognized Level-0 skills in playing Traveller, and welcomed the addition of skills inherently simple enough to attempt without any formal training.

The heart of T4 was the next section, Tasks. Here I ran into problems. When reading through the brand-new T4 back then, I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t find the rule for “roll 2d6>8 for success.” That was because T4 uses a different task resolution system, one that involved four separate elements:

  • A target number – typically a skill matched with a primary attribute.
  • A dice code appropriate to the innate difficulty of the task.
  • The possibility of one or more difficulty modifiers, reflecting factors influencing the event, such as bonuses for helpful equipment or penalties for troublesome conditions.
  • Finally, the result, whether a success or failure, and the possible spectacular result. (p. 49)

The Target Number is really quite simple; add Primary Attribute plus Skill. For success, the player had to roll this number OR LESS. The Dice Code assigned difficulty and then gave the appropriate dice pool to be rolled. This was confusing because some difficulties, like Staggering, called for 3.5D. What was a .5D? Unfortunately the definition of a half-die was not in Tasks, but all the way back on p. 13 under Definition of Terms for Die or Dice. Difficulty Modifiers were often for equipment or environment and usually associated with an item or condition specified in the book. The modifiers change the Target Number. I also was confused at Uncertain Tasks which called for the Referee to roll dice for the players! Finally, the Result was usually a binary Pass/Fail condition, although Spectacular Results hinted at extraordinary outcomes. The rules specified the referee would decide the extent of the result, with player input welcome but not required. This was in keeping with the low player agency approach Traveller has always had.

In theory (and play), the T4 Task System is very easy. Making an Admin check to see if your paperwork passes? Lets see, Skill -1 plus Education 7 is a Target Number of 8. Referee says its an average (2D) check with no other modifiers. Roll 2D  for a 7 – Success!

Ground Combat uses the same basic approach except that range determines difficulty. Shooting a target at Short Range is a Difficult (2.5D) task. Depending upon the weapon, one might get a bonus if it is capable of shooting at longer ranges. Damage is given in whole die increments, with armor negating dies of damage.

Equipment, Surface Vehicles, Spacecraft, Space Travel, Psionics, World Generation, and Encounters all would of been familiar to CT players with two exceptions. Spacecraft used a new ship design sequence, called the Quick Ship Design Sequence (QSDS). Much like the old CT Book 2, this is a very modularized, building block, seemingly assembly-line ship design sequence focused on simplicity. These days I understand it was a radical change from the exceedingly complex and detailed Fire, Fusion, & Steel of TNE. The second change was in Space Combat. The ship-to-ship combat game focused on Adventure-class ships and was a mix of CT Book 2 and CT Book 5 High Guard. Again, this was a great step down from detailed TNE ship combat systems like Brilliant Lances or Battle Rider.

Section 14: Referee’s Introduction, actually includes rules for Skill Improvement, Learning, and Improving Characteristics. Coming once again from my CT background, these were dramatic changes that shocked me (as welcome as they were). There is also the obligatory Running Adventures and Campaigns which I too often skip. The next section, Trade and Commerce, is very near the familiar trade system of CT.

T4 includes two sample adventures. I didn’t pay much attention to these, instead focusing on the map for the Core Subsector in Milieu 0. I also closely read the updated Library Data.

What I Though of It Then – When I first read T4 I was lost. So much was the same as CT yet the core mechanic was totally different. That difference was enough to lose me. In those days, I was a concrete learner when it came to RPG mechanics. I was closed minded to nearly anything other than 2d6. Part of this was sci-fi elitism; I didn’t play d20 D&D because 2D6 sci-fi was far superior! At the same time, T4 was not different enough from CT to make me want to dig much deeper. I was also very comfortable with the Golden Era of the Third Imperium setting – I didn’t feel the need to explore Milieu 0 or any other alternative setting. Thus, T4 was put on the shelf and remained untouched.

What I Think of It Now – Over the years, T4 got a reputation of being a “hot mess.” Often times, this criticism revolves around poor editing of books or rules that seemingly contradict themselves. The criticism is justified at times; when reviewing the core book for this retrospective I found numerous cross-referencing errors, especially in the combat examples. Production values of the books were suspect. The layout is very unimaginative and many people feel the use of Chris Foss’ color art was not appropriate for the Traveller setting. T4 is seen as a useless edition and not worthy of even being talked about.

These days I take a more charitable view. In looking at the five goals set out in the book, I think T4 actually succeeds. This was probably a disappointment to those System Engineer players who seemingly want more detail. Part of why I love Traveller is that the world-building system is internally consistent and generally works together across a broad spectrum of equipment and information. I see T4 as aimed at the more Casual Player with a nod towards Detailed Role-Players. This iteration of Traveller steps back from the System Engineer dominance of TNE and it shows through the simplification of the rules. I also happen to be a fan of Chris Foss, and absolutely love his spaceships.

As much as T4 tried to embrace Casual Players, and entice Detailed Role-Players, the system ultimately suffers from a lack of narrative control and dampened player agency. The referee is clearly in charge in T4, like he has been since Classic Traveller. This lack of narrative access, combined with a reduction in System Engineer game subsystems, is what I think really doomed T4. It is very interesting to look at the 2008 release of Mongoose Traveller (MgT) and see just how much T4 and MgT are alike. Of course, MgT uses the classic 2d6 mechanic – maybe that made all the difference.

From an RPG-perspective, I give Marc Miller’s Traveller 4th Edition Totally Subjective Game Rating (Scale of 1-5):

  • System Crunch = 2 (Highly simplified mechanics)
  • Simulationist = 3 (Consistent world-building game systems)
  • Narrativism = 2 (Few concessions to narrative play; low player agency)

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

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

#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:


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!


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.”