#RPGaDay 2017 – Which #RPG have you played the most in your life? #TravellerRPG!

#RPGaDay August 18, 2017

pic514176Don’t even have to think…it’s Traveller. Started in 1979 with the 1977 Little Black Book boxed edition. I somehow missed the MegaTraveller and Traveller: New Era times. I came back to Traveller in the much maligned (but personally respected Traveller 4).  These days I use a combination of Classic Traveller, Cepheus Engine, and Traveller 5.

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#RPGThursday – Not Encountering Traveller5

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

Courtesy FFE.com

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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Courtesy thealexandrian.net

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

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

I don’t like it.

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


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

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

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

#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.”

 

#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.”

#FourRPGs of Influence

Reading the #FourRPGs hashtag on Twitter is a great nostalgia trip, as well a thinking challenge. Here are the four RPGs that most influenced me.

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From tasteofsoundsfiles.wordpress.com

#1 – Classic Traveller (Published 1977 – discovered 1979)

Anybody remember the game store Fascination Corner in Arapahoe Mall in the Southeast suburbs of Denver? It was there I bought my first war-game, Panzer, by Yaquinto Games in 1979. Soon after that, I found a little black box with a very simple logo. The game was Traveller, and it was a role-playing game. Being a huge Star Wars fan, I just had to have the game. This was my gateway into RPGs. Although I had friends who played Dungeons & Dragons, I didn’t (fantasy didn’t catch my attention then, and to this day still doesn’t). I have never looked back since.

I actively played RPGs until the mid-late 1980’s. After college, my job and family didn’t really give me the time to play. Instead, I became a bit of a collector. I tried to keep up with Traveller (buying Marc Miller’s T4 and later the Mongoose Traveller versions). I tried other Somewhere in the mid-2000’s, I discovered DriveThruRPG, and started building an electronic collection of games that I had missed. Being a huge Traveller RPG fan, I stayed with GDW RPGs for the longest time. Sure, I dabbled in other systems (like the James Bond 007 RPG), but I really tried to stay away from Dungeons & Dragons. I had tried my hand at D20 Modern, invested heavily in the Star Wars: Saga Edition, and even looked at Savage Worlds, but none of then really captured my interest.

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From en.battlestarwiki.org

#2 – Battlestar Galactica (Published and discovered 2007)

Being a huge fan of the show, I just had to have Margret Weis’ Battlestar Galactica RPG. I was immediately sold on what is now known as the Cortex Classic System (which, in retrospect, is not so different from Savage Worlds). The Battlestar Galactica RPG was a major turning point for me because it was with this game that I truly embraced designs beyond the Classic Traveller system. The Plot Points system, i.e. a tangible game currency for the players to influence the story, was a major break from my previous gaming philosophy. I realized that I was too fixated on systems like Classic Traveller, with its many sub-games, which is very wargame-like and not actually a great storytelling engine. I continued to follow the Cortex system, and these days really enjoy the Firefly RPG using the Cortex Plus system.

edge-of-the-empire-corerulebook_ffg_2013
From en.wikipedia.org

#3 – Star Wars: Edge of the Empire (Published and discovered 2013)

While Battlestar Galactica started me on the path to narrative RPG play, I didn’t truly arrive until Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. I had got the core rule book and the Beginner’s Game and tried to play with my boys. But at first I just didn’t “get it.” What do all those funny dice really mean? One day I discovered the Order 66 podcast, and listened to their advice on Triumph and Despair. At that moment it all clicked. From then, I was sold on the the system and strongly believe that this game is the best marriage of theme and gameplay. That said, I have to say that the later volumes of this game system, Age of Rebellion and Force & Destiny don’t hold my interest as much as Edge of the Empire does.

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From evilhat.com

#4 –Atomic Robo (Published and discovered 2014)

After Edge of the Empire, I started looking for other narrative RPGs. Somehow, I happened across a copy of Atomic Robo. I picked up the game (mostly on a whim) but after reading it was so intrigued by the gaming possibilities. As fortune would have it, I also discovered a Bundle of Holding that had many FATE products. I discovered I had been missing out on a great game system. Now, in addition to Atomic Robo, I enjoy Diaspora (FATE 3.0) and Mindjammer (FATE Core). I have even played a few games using FATE Accelerated with the boys, much to their (and my) enjoyment.

Truth be told, these days I pay much more attention to the “game engine” than the actual game. I admit that my favorite “game engine” these days is FATE Core. That said, I still enjoy Traveller (and even the much-maligned Traveller 5) although the newest Mongoose Traveller Second Edition is not impressing me.