#StarTrekAdventures RPG – What Do You See?

In the most recent Star Trek Adventures RPG living playtest email from Chris Birch at Modiphius he wrote, “Hope you like this new image!” I usually don’t have any real opinion of art in RPG products. Honestly, I rarely even think about it. But this time I did and I definitely have a reaction to it. But before I tell you what  I think about this picture a little of my Star Trek RPG history may help you understand where I am coming from.

My Beginning – FASA Star Trek

trekrpg
Courtesy Grognardia

My first Star Trek RPG was Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game (FASA, 1983). The art in this product consists mostly of screenshots taken from The Original Series. In later products FASA commissioned artists for original artwork and by that time Paramount had released several Star Trek movies which heavily influenced the look. For instance, the first sourcebook, The Klingons,

pic550258_t
RPGGeek

had a “new” Klingon on the cover. The art content fell broadly falls into two categories; people and ships. The people art was generally staid with little dynamic action; what I term “poser” art. Then, like now, I find the artwork very neutral – indeed almost too neutral – and not exciting or deeply inspirational.

Call to Action – Prime Directive

pic504021_md
Courtesy RPGGeek

As I was a fan of the board game (and miniatures) of Star Fleet Battles, when Task Force Games brought out their RPG for that universe I scooped it up – with mild disappointment. But looking back on the artwork of Prime Directive, I see a few things that I like. For instance, the cover has action. Here I see what is likely a Federation Prime Team, with jackets on and phasers ready, in a temple-like structure being attacked (?) by an alien wielding a long spear with a bladed end. Take note that the team is facing the threat. Later versions on Prime Directive, especially the more recent d20 and d20 Modern variants, went to a style of art that I am not a fan of, but still harken back to core themes of the Trek universe. Like this cover from D20 Modern.

pic1246279_t
RPGGeek

Here I see another Prime Team with each character acting in an iconic fashion; the blue-shirted scientist is pointing out something, the red-shirted security guy is getting ready to die, and the gold-shirted commander is leading. Not a lot of action, but each character captures (inspires) a role to play.

The Vanguard of My Imagination

screen-shot-2015-08-05-at-9-38-27-am
Courtesy readstartrekbooks

There is another influence on my “expectation” of a Star Trek RPG, coming from the Star Trek Vanguard series of books. This series appeals to me because it is an Original Series-era setting but with a more confrontational and mysterious adventure. In terms of their book covers, they all consist of ship art and are full of action. I especially like Reap the Whirlwind which shows off the small USS Sagittarius daringly passing in front of a much larger (and dangerous?) Klingon ship. Now that is adventure inspiration!

 

A Call to New Star Trek Adventures

sta-tos-2_1_orig
Modiphius Games

Which brings me back to the new Star Trek Adventures. Much like FASA Trek before, the art shown to date consists of ships and people. In this case the ships are trying to evoke a nostalgic reaction as they portray the iconic Enterprise across the TV series’ and movies. But it is the people art that catches my attention. To me, the people art shows how the writers and publishers of this game see their own game. Through those images they show me, the player (and customer), how they think the game should inspire me to play.

sta-bridge-1_orig
Courtesy Modiphius Games

The first people image I saw was a crew on the bridge of what appears to be a Original Series ship. I like  that it is Original Series and that it is full of action. But to me it is the wrong action. I see a Federation ship that has been boarded by Klingons with at least two injured (dead?) already. The Captain is desperately fighting another ship even as the Klingons board his ship and threaten his bridge. This doesn’t look like it will end well. Indeed, this image reminds me what I see as an overused trope in too many Star Trek movies; Abandon Ship! How many times has the Enterprise now been destroyed? I personally am tired of the trope and it infuriates me because I see it as lazy writing for it has been used too many times to do nothing more than generate emotions (nostalgic longing for the ship) move the adventure off the to a different location.

st-awayteam-finalcrop_1
Courtesy Modiphius Games

The next image very different. It changes eras (to the Next Generation) which I am only “meh” to (except if we are talking about the alternate Federation found in Yesterday’s Enterprise). There is a lot of action going on here; from an exploding planet above to collapsing towers in the background to explosions. I also see a blue-shirted scientist studying a mystical hologram while two gold-shirted security guards are near a mysteriously glowing obelisk. A red-shirted officer is pointing, probably commanding the group since she is the only one wearing the red-shirt of command. On the far left we see a second blue-shirt scientist racing towards the group. That is a lot of action, and I see this as the moment the plan has gone sideways and the PCs are faced with a choice. It is the classic “Oh, Crap!” moment.

Image 3-17-17 at 8.34 AM
Courtesy Modiphius Games

This picture, the one that that started all my ramblings, appears to take place shortly after the previous “Oh, Crap!” moment. The scientist previously seen racing towards the group is now racing away. He is being followed by a somewhat acrobatic gold-shirt security man. Our intrepid red-shirt leader is also on the run with the blue-shirt scientist previously studying the hologram(?) now also sprinting away. In the right top, two more characters not seen in the previous image are visible; a red-shirt being rescued by a gold-shirt. There are also at four characters in the left background; two (?) gold, a blue and a red-shirt.

There’s at least ten people in this scene. I’m going to assume the blue-shirt hippie dude, the acrobatic blue-skin gold-shirt, red-shirt leader and blue-shirt hologram scientist are player characters. A fifth PC may be the other gold-shirt security in the previous picture. That means this scene has a PC party of five with five supporting NPCs. To use the words of the man in the White House, “That’s yuge!” I have to wonder if Star Trek Adventures is playable only by large groups. Is there something in the game mechanics that makes this necessary or desirable or is it optional?

In a bit that I find very important all the characters seem to be running away from the threat. This runs (no joke intended) counter to what I see as a core tenet of the Star Trek universe; characters always face the threat. I am not saying that a strategic withdrawal is never in order but to show me a scene where everyone is running away – it makes me think of Doctor Who where the characters are always running. If I want to play game with running, I’ll play Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space (11th Doctor) which I already own.

I can already hear some critics saying, “It’s your game. Play it like YOU want to play!” I heartily agree, and will do so, as long as the mechanics of the game allow me to!

“How do you like this image?”

Sorry, Chris. I don’t.

I don’t like it because although it looks Star Trek (the uniforms and alien species) it doesn’t look like the heroic Star Trek I expect – and want – to play.

 

#RPGThursday Retrospective – Ending My Second RPG Interregnum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was, until my next purchase.


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

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

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

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

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

#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:

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.

RPG Thursday – A Retrospective Look at The Babylon Project

Courtesy RPG Geek

Not long ago, I was in a (sometimes) FLGS and saw a whole slew of Mongoose D20 Babylon 5 RPGbooks. Having seen this sit on the shelf for over a year, I approached the staff and was able to make a deal to get a nice discount on a bulk buy. All the books I purchased were source books covering races or campaigns; I don’t have the Mongoose Babylon 5 D20 rules nor do I want them given they were based on Dungeons & Dragon Third Edition. What I do have is Mongoose Traveller Universe of Babylon 5 and the much older Chameleon Eclectic Entertainment, Inc. The Babylon Project.

I actually didn’t remember much of The Babylon Project and never actually played it with a group.  I do remember thinking the combat system was “complicated.”  I recently took the time to reread the rules. In doing so, I now have to reconsider the game and give it more credit than I had previously.

In terms of production values, the book was ahead of its times. Full-color pages make it rich looking, even if some of the art is of marginal quality (a mix of photos from the series and artwork inspired by the same). Today people would scream for a low-ink version for print-at-home.

I remember not liking character generation. Of course, I had grown up on Classic Traveller  making many of the concepts in The Babylon Project seem foreign. Character generation in The Babylon Project uses a combination storytelling and point-buy approach and is done in three phases. In the first phase, the player uses storytelling aspects to create a character concept and basic history. This in turn leads to adjusting the 13 attributes that define your character. Attributes are rated 1-9 with each race having a typical attribute value. Players can adjust the typical attributes based on the concept and background but for every attribute raised another has to be lowered. The second phase – childhood – has the player answer another set of questions which guide picking Learned Skills and Characteristics (an early version of the Savage Worlds or Cortex System advantages/hindrances). This same process is repeated in a third phase – adulthood – which again gains Learned Skills and more (or changed) Characteristics. This system was very much NOT what I had grown up with in Traveller or my other RPGs of this time like FASA’s Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game or the first edition of Prime Directive. At the time, I think it was just too different for me to be comfortable; now I see it for what it is – a well thought out, guided, lifepath character generation system.

The adventure and campaign system focuses less on episodic events than on creation of a story arc. The Babylon Project certainly tries to match the grand, sweeping, epic feel of the series. The mechanic used is the Story Chart which the Gamemaster uses to loosely chart out the path of the campaign. The Story Chart uses four basic symbols to lay out an adventure:

  • Non-exclusive Chapters: Events which do not directly relate to other events in the story; can be worked into story almost any point to uncover key pieces of information, encounter non-critical NPCs, or experience important scenes.
  • Exclusive Chapters: Events which the characters must experience and can only happen once; these change the nature of the story and cannot be revisited or reversed.
  • Independent Chapters: Not critical to the overall puzzle, but may help.
  • Information: The flow between chapters that lead from one to another.

Like character generation, I think at the time I viewed this (again) as too different to understand. Today, I can see the designer’s intent and zeal to get closer to the grand, sweeping, epic feel of Babylon 5. Unfortunately, even today I don’t often see a similar approach in other games that could use it like Star Wars Saga Edition or even Battlestar Galactica.

The core Game Mechanic is actually very simple. Players compare Attribute+Skill and Specialty+/- Modifiers +/- a Random Modifier against a Task Difficulty set by the GM. To use the examples from the book:

Jessica is attempting to bypass the reactor control circuitry. The bypass isn’t particularly difficult, but Jessica is working by flashlight in zero-G. Dana specifies that Jessica will take the necessary time to make sure the job is done right. Taking all of those factors into consideration, the GM decides that the task is Difficult, which gives it a Difficulty Number of 11. Jessica’s Intelligence is 5; her skill in Engineering: Electrical is 3; and her Specialty in Electrical Applications adds another 2 – all totaling to an Ability of 10. Her GM decides that no additional penalties or bonuses apply. (The Babylon Project, p. 90)

The Random Modifier is created by taking two die (a green positive and red negative) and rolling. Look at the lowest number. That die is now the modifier – positive if the green die and negative if the red. This makes the Random Modified range from +5 to -5.  To continue using the example from the rule book:

Dana rolls the dice. Her Negative Die result is 5, with a Positive Die result of 2. Thus, her Random Modifier is +2. (The Babylon Project, p. 91)

The degree of success or failure is also a consideration. As the example continues:

Jessica’s Ability in her attempt to bypass the reactor control circuitry is 10. Adding the Random Modifier of +2 just rolled by Dana gets a total Result of 12. That’s 1 over the Difficulty of 11 set by the GM – a Marginal Success. The GM tells Dana that Jessica’s bypass has fixed the problem, but that it won’t hold up for long, and not at all if the reactor is run at over half its rated power output. Thus, her success in the task resolution fixes the problem, but the GM interprets its marginal nature as a limitation on engine power and fortitude. (The Babylon Project, p. 91)

Given my close acquaintance with Classic Traveller and the definite lack of a clearly defined task system – much less an emphasis on degrees of success – it is not surprising I didn’t immediately embrace the simple task mechanic in The Babylon Project.

Combat comes in two forms, Close and Ranged, and is played in phases of two-seconds each meaning the player character gets a single action. Players make an attacker roll versus a defender roll. An important combat consideration is aim point; there is a default aim point and if the attacker wants to (or must) aim elsewhere there is a modifier. The degree of success determines how close to the aim point the hit occurs and the level of damage. Combat then moves to Immediate Effects. This table determines if the hit results in immediate death, stun, or impairment. Given the Damage Ratings of the weapons and not-so-great armor this means combat in The Babylon Project is very dangerous! Once combat is over, then Final Effects are dealt with, to include the extent of injuries and wounds. Like all of The Babylon Project, there is a heavy emphasis on the storytelling effect of the injury. Again this is nothing like Classic Traveller yet today I can see the design effect the designer was reaching for – speedy combat using the simple core mechanic with detailed wounds and healing latter. I think the designer achieved what he was trying to do with combat.

The Babylon Project also uses Fortune Points, this games version of Bennies or Plot Points. Each player starts a session with five Fortune Points. Fortune Points can be used to improve a task roll, save  your life in combat, and attempt a task that the player normally could not attempt. This game mechanism is not found in Classic Traveller and a the time I think I saw it as too cinematic or “space opera” for my hard sci-fi taste. Today, I take for granted the use of Plot Points or Bennies or like mechanisms as a useful tool for players to exercise narrative control on the game instead of leaving it in the sole hands of the GM. I have also grown to appreciate the cinematic benefits of Plot Points as I have moved (a bit) away from hard sci-fi rules mechanics.

Courtesy RPG Geek

The last page of The Babylon Project rulebook is a one-page GM Reference Sheet. Literally everything needed to run the game is on this one page. Really…everything! How did they ever expect to sell a GM screen? In fact they did – it was one of the items I also picked up in my bulk buy – and used three panels. The left panel has Attributes and Skills (a useful reminder of the entire list available) as well as Martial Arts Maneuvers (rules added in the Earthforce Sourcebook supplement). The right panel is a Weapons and Armor table – again useful but not absolutely essential. The center panel is a colorful, slightly reformatted version of the original GM Reference Guide.

Courtesy RPG Geek

It would also be negligent of me not to mention that one of the reasons I originally got The Babylon Project was for the space combat system. Introduced in Earthforce Sourcebook, the space combat system was developed by Jon Tuffley and based on his successful Full Thrust miniatures system. This approach to incorporating popular, known, miniatures space combat rules and an RPG was later repeated by the Traveller community with the publication of Power Projection: Fleet.

Rereading The Babylon Project has opened my eyes to just how much of a gem this game really is. Compared to the more recent Mongoose Traveller Universe of Babylon 5, which I reviewed in 2011, the earlier The Babylon Project is more appropriate to the source and setting. Since the 1997 publication of the game, I have also matured as an RPG player and am more comfortable with the narrative/storytelling  and cinematic aspects of the rules. I can now see where The Babylon Project is much like the early Cortex System (Serenity and Battlestar Galactica RPGs) or Savage Worlds – game systems I really love and enjoy playing.  I think I will work on a story arc for The Babylon Project and see what happens….

RPG Thursday – My Top Seven RPG Internet Meme

James over at Grognardia started it, and I am late to get on the bandwagon.

My top 7 played RPGs in 2012 (and a good marker for the past several years):

1 – Classic Traveller (Admittedly not so much the RPG but the setting. I especially have played the games of Classic Traveller such as Striker, Book 5: High Guard, Adventure 5: Trillion Credit Squadron, Imperium, Fifth Frontier War, and Power Projection: Fleet; as well as using adventures such as Adventure 7: Broadsword as inspiration for Tomorrow’s War.)

2- Mongoose Traveller (including Hammer’s Slammers, Outpost Mars and Orbital)

3 – Battlestar Galactica

4 – Serenity

5 – Prime Directive

6 – Mouse Guard

7 – Others I played around with in 2012 were Marvel Heroic Roleplaying and the new Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner’s Game. Also messed around with Space: 1889 and A Song of Ice and Fire: Game of Thrones Edition.

RPG Thursday – Wargaming Prime Directive RPG

Courtesy Starfleetgames

I have been a Star Fleet Battles (SFB) player since 1979. I am very well versed in the mythos of the Star Fleet Universe (SFU). For a while there I collected nearly ANYTHING SFU. That included the Prime Directive RPG.

Over the years, Prime Directive (PD) has been released in several versions.  The First Edition (1E) featured a “house” system that I am not all that familiar with. Amarillo Design Bureau (ADB) then jumped on the OGL-bandwagon and released Prime Directive d20 as well as a GURPS version (which I don’t have). More recently, a Modern d20 version has been released (PD20 Modern).

In 2011, ADB entered into an agreement with Mongoose Publishing. In addition to releasing a new version of A Call to Arms there is also talk of a Mongoose Traveller RPG version of Prime Directive.

Getting excited, I pulled out my old Prime Directive d20 and rolled up a character. IN doing so I realized something I had never noticed before; character feats directly translate to Star Fleet Battles effects.

Specifically, I am talking about the Naval Line Officer Class found in the Core Rulebook. A character in this class “progresses” through tours in Helm, Astrogation, and Gunnery (Weapons). Feats such as “Helmsmanship, Exceptional [General]” are earned. But what does that feat give you. What I never noticed before was the feat near-entirely describes what Star Fleet Battles rules apply or are modified!

Courtesy Starfleetgames

Lets take a look at the “Helmsmanship, Exceptional [General]” feat. The benefit reads “The specialist is so familiar with the ship that the ship’s turn mode is increased by one letter grade (B to A, etc). The ship has the Legendary Navigator’s ability with erratic manuevers and high energy turns. See rule (G22.8) for more translations of this Feat into Star Fleet Battles abilities.” (Prime Directive d20, Core Rulebook, p. 46) In only one other place do I find a similar rule, that being under the Pilot Class where a pilot with the “To the Max!” feat gains the Ace Pilot ability in SFB.

Maybe this is why I stayed away from PD for so long? What is admittedly a core character class is described in SFB terms? If you don’t play SFB you can’t benefit from the character feats? To be fair, in a few places the SFB ability is translated (loosely) into an abstract d20 space combat effect. Too few to be really useful. To further complicate matters, the flagship ADB product these days is Federation Commander, a streamlined version of SFB that doesn’t even use Legendary Officers.

All this has me worried about Traveller Prime Directive. Mongoose has a rather poor track record in my mind when translating franchises into Mongoose Traveller terms. I worry that the “source material” in this case may be too poor to begin with. I can only  hope; and withhold my dollars until I can be sure!