Monday, August 19, 2019

Mail Room: Solo (Cepheus Engine)


Solo RPG Campaigns for the Cepheus Engine is an interesting solo play product designed for the Cepheus Engine or any Traveller-like RPG, but one could really use it for most any RPG given a little tweaking. This is what I love about OGL gaming, you get so many cool and different ideas and new concepts out here your mind is blown once you do a little digging.

This is also why nostalgia is an inherently regressive force, if all we do is put older games on pedestals and worship them like idols, we become afraid to change them, improve them, and try new things. Endless reprints of older games where they are judged to be "how faithful they are" to older editions does not create an incentive to streamline, improve, or try new things.

M2E Traveller and D&D 5 ultimately are nostalgia plays, but they strike a good balance between keeping things how they were, and improving things that obviously needed to be improved. Basic Fantasy is also another game that says "we are keeping the OSR feeling" but simplifies a lot of the concepts to more modern concepts, and that works very well.

To me, Cepheus Engine and Labyrinth Lord are a lot alike, they work towards compatibility and creating an OGL base from which new things can be created. And thus, Solo RPG Campaigns for the Cepheus Engine has been created to fill a niche, how does one person play these inherently social games?

Solo: Solo Play?

Solo creates a lightweight structure around the host game's rules, and presents a method of advancing story-lines for a group of characters. Once person plays as a group of characters, a complete party, so this puts an emphasis on having a rules system where characters are simple and ultimately disposable. I would not play this in a game system took 4 hours to generate each party member, so having lightweight characters is a huge plus. I could play this with a retro-clone such as Labyrinth Lord, Basic Fantasy, or even Mutant Future if I wish.

Group Conflicts

Think of the group dynamic here as "characters in the cast of a movie" such as Alien, The Thing, a war movie, or any other film where the action focuses around a group of characters working together to solve various problems and work towards a goal. Inter-group conflicts based on personalities and relationships in a huge thing here, and Solo provides a system for creating and managing these conflicts, and handling them during play.

This is an interesting choice, since it tells the solo player "you are not fully in control of the party" and generates those interpersonal conflicts for the team during play. So instead of 4-6 players creating the inter-party dramatic moments, the system does that and the player needs to imagine, resolve, and deal with the consequences.

Plans and Outcomes

The driving dynamic behind Solo is the concept of plans and outcomes. You don't turn-by-turn play here, you play a meta-game where you present the group with a situation, rescue the princess from the tower surrounded by orcs, and you make a plan to resolve that situation based on your party, how you approach the situation, and if your plan is risky or not. Based on the plan you assign a difficulty and resolve the plan with a success roll and a later consequences roll (modified by various factors).

If your plan works, the princess is rescued. There may be consequences afterwards, such as losing a party member or equipment, injury, or other good and bad outcomes. That is rolled for afterwards on a second table.

After that, the player comes up with two options for the next course of action, and picks one. That becomes the next plan and the process is repeated. All this is written down so it creates a journal of play as you go, and this helps cement your plans, options, and outcomes into something that is enjoyable to read over later.

Do the Rules Still Matter?

An obvious question is if you are going to ignore turn-by-turn play, do the rules even matter? Well, not exactly. The characters you create will have skills and abilities that are important for how you make plans. The rules system you are using and the internal logic still matter. If I was playing a D&D type game where clerics and turn and dispel undead, that fact (and having a character able to do this) is an important thing to know if a situation ever comes up where I need to create a plan to deal with undead. If i have a character with a mind-reading power, that can be used in my plans. If I have a pilot or mechanic, that is also something I need to know.

In the turning-dead example, this system also assumes you have a basic familiarity with how the game works and what that internal logic is. It helps having played the system and knowing some of these things when situations are created, plans are made, and the resolution decided upon. If in Traveller, missiles in ship-to-ship combat worked a certain way versus energy weapons, knowing that, how they are defended against, and how basic ship combat works will give you more information on creating, resolving, and running plans with the Solo system.

That said, while I own and know a lot of complicated RPGs, I would prefer to play this with simpler ones since the systems and rules I need to understand and keep in my head are much easier to manage. if I can master a game mentally, the plans and consequences and factors that affect success are much easier to know and give me a richer experience since I know how everything works together.

Where is the Roleplaying?

That is a good question. The system has a concept of 'fortune in the middle' that is interesting. In traditional games, they do a 'fortune at the end' sort of roleplaying outcome system, you sneak down a hall, roll stealth, do the guards spot you? You go from area to area and situation to situation at a very low level. Fortune at the end means you roleplay moment to moment depending on the outcomes of individual tests, and the sum total of those tests and the situation determines how the situation comes out - at the end.

In Solo, they turn this on its head and abstract the scene - you don't need to map out a secret base and play through turn-by-turn, you plan, resolve, and the outcomes and random charts tells you the outcome - you then fill in what happened during the mission with our imagination and make it fit the outcome. Fortune in the middle means, the end result is determined based on a pass/fail roll modified by several factors and your party's capabilities (and how the plan suits them), and you roleplay what happens in the middle of the action - you make up what happened inside that secret base based on the eventual outcome rolled.
You need to turn on the ship's reactor, but evil bug aliens infest that deck of your ship. You make a plan, bust in with a force of marines in the front door and attract attention, while two technicians sneak in the back of the deck through the air shafts. Risky plan, but it has a good element of deception and distraction. The potential for accidental death and destruction is high. 
You succeed, but the consequences say you lose a random member of the plan. Maybe one of the technicians is ambushed by a stray bug in the airshaft in a heroic last stand to distract the bugs and let the other technician complete the repair. You make up the middle and "roleplay" what happened inside the event.
And two options present themselves after, either clear out the bugs, or proceed towards the falling space station in the gas giant's gravity for a rescue...
As you may see from the example, the characters in Solo should be disposable, like the members of a horror or action movie cast, since they are ultimately resources used to tell a story. Depending on the risks taken, you could and possibly will lose characters during a game.

Can I Sill...Play?

This is an interesting question. Can you still...play? I mean, break down and play out a combat, make individual skill rolls, and use the rules as they were intended to be used? For me, I would say yes. If you really want to have a starship battle "on the board" and you want to play that out, I say go for it and used the results of that action to cover the pass/fail and potentially the consequences phases of the Solo system.

If there are no meaningful consequences, like your ship escapes unscathed, I may still say "roll for them anyways" to figure out if something unexpected happens. If your ship takes a ton of damage - that is the consequence - but you may still roll if a good consequence is called for as well. I would replace a negative consequence with the heavy damage though, as you don't want to double-up on a bad situation already with a second ruling just because the dice say so.

Looking Forward to This

This was a product that captured my imagination, given my current player-less situation and me being a lifelong fan of roleplaying games. This also prompted me to invest in the Cepheus Engine games, including the modern rules supplement, and got me interested in the system.

I am hoping Solo helps me fill the void here, if just a little, and it gives me some moments of fun as I work through my loss and rebuilding the love I have for our games.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Sci-Fi Gaming: Ship Combat

Sci-fi gaming and starship combat is a tricky thing. You don't want this to be a gimme and have the players win every starship fight, but the nature of space battles are typically all-or-nothing life-or-death affairs. You lose, your engines are slag and you are drifting off in space, you outright blow up into space vapors, life support is gone, a laser vaporizes the bridge and just the ship's doctor is left hiding in an airlock, and you the party is in a "might as well be dead" sort of place.

Games with starfighter combat are similarly fraught with insta-death WW2 movie style danger, unless, of course, there is some sort of built-in player protection with the rules. I don't like player protection in my rules, as I am a fan of the old-school "keep characters simple and disposable" mentality. Player protection opens the door to complicated character creation and is ultimately a tool of retaining players via a social contract built into the rules.
If it takes four hours to create a character I am not having them die in the first five minutes!
Why would players play that type of game? I wouldn't. I would play the game that takes 5 minutes to design a character and 5 minutes to lose them. I don't have that much time anymore, and frankly all of the games that supported complex designs and player protection have been put away. My life is simple, and my games need to reflect that or I end up looking at them and never enjoying them. They become "things I wish I had the time to play" and they make me feel sad. So away they go.

Ship Combat as Rules Complexity

It is funny because I started this article thinking about sci-fi RPG ship combat and it ended up really being about how easy it is to lose characters. The two concepts are tightly tied together because if you cannot lose characters easy your ship combat systems must reflect that and have player-protection rules written into them as well. Complexity is added to the system, and the amount of special cases and rules you need to process increase.

In computer terms, your application becomes bloated and full of special cases. Your CPU, memory, and disk space usage get higher and higher the more you write these special case rules, and the whole system gets and feels heavy and slow.

And if players are protected, ships must be as well. I am not spending four hours designing a starship to have it blown up in the first five minutes! Bloat increases and the time it takes to process and play the game increases.

Part of what made us give up on Pathfinder is that you could not keep the entire game in your head anymore. Even remembering "what book do I go to for that?" became a nightmare and we found ourselves shelving books on different shelves based on what type of rules the book had. We never really got into Starfinder as a result, which is a shame because it looked fun, but our overload with Pathfinder contributed (unfairly I would say) to our exhaustion with the system or anything like it.

Knight Hawks

The old Star Frontiers supplement Knight Hawks felt like a good balance of ship combat, complexity, and character interaction. It felt strange for us at the time to "wargame it out" while the PCs were there, as we preferred more of a storytelling game. Also, our ideas of starships were a bit more advanced than the lower-tech designs seen in Star Frontiers (because they never had ships in the main rules and we assumed Star Wars and Space Opera were more our thing for how ships worked).

There wasn't a lot of player protection either in Knight Hawks, other than bailing out and running to the escape pods. If your ship was space toast, that was it. I had as player who refused to put escape pods in his ship, and that upped the ante. His reasoning was, "if the ship goes, I go" and it was a sort of a silly thing kids do, but it raised the stakes.

I know, the ship should have failed its first inspection as a deathtrap and worker safety hazard, but we never knew better. And I am not sure anyone would want to work on that thing looking back, but he was "the best starship captain in the galaxy" and took on that sort of "Han Solo never used escape pods" sort of machismo.

These days, give me an escape pod please.

Traveller

I see escape pods mentioned in the new Traveller rules (under encounters), but not in the ship designs or rules in what I can quickly find. They are one of those "assumed items" I suppose but I would like that spelled out somewhere (I may have missed it), and I would like those clearly laid out on the ship maps (since that really matters during boarding actions or other emergencies).

I need to play some more of this game, especially ship combat, and get a feel for how this goes. You can sit and theory craft about "how you think things are" but until you play your opinions are just theories and feelings. Knight Hawks and even Space Opera we played a lot of, and we had a good feel for how those games worked. More on this soon.

Star Wars

There are a lot of different Star Wars games, and our experiences with the Fantasy Flight version did not include many starship battles. Now that I think about it, not having any starship battles in a Star Wars RPG just feels...wrong. The modules we played did not have many or you could skip them, which we did. From what we saw, they were more abstracted and narrative affairs, and the ships felt more like abstract characters that fought each other using player skills instead of traditional vehicles where it is more of a "to the metal" experience of damage location charts and complicated movement and positioning systems.

If I pull my old Star Wars books out I may play this, but it is a more complicated game and my interest in things Star Wars is pretty low right now. The story of that universe feels nearly done for some reason to me. I am ready to move on and see new things.

Overall

Overall I need more experience in Traveller at this point, and I want to see how that system has been updated. I like the lower-tech ship battles and more gritty feel, and that is what captures my imagination these days. I am not feeling much interest in flashy space battles and I am a bit worn-out on modern CGI and VFX. I am craving the real these days, and something cold and mathematical like the old Harpoon rules from GDW. A system where you could go into a battle knowing you are going to lose it, and only your wits and possibly sheer luck can save you. These days, that is what excites me about ship combat.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Traveller: Character Histories are Important

As some of you know, I lost my best and only player in the last year, and it has been a tough transition. Most of the games we played together are packed away, and I do not really have the time to join a group at a hobby store for two reasons: my free time is limited, and there are no hobby stores close with regular games.

I probably should try anyways, I know.

Our gaming room has been taken down and re-purposed, and I haven't played a game with someone in over a year. I have tried MMOs but they don't replace the fun of tabletop gaming. The rules of MMOs are terrible time grinds designed to take all your free time and money, and the roleplaying in those games feel like they are less concerned with high adventure and more concerned with interpersonal relationships.

T&T Solo Play

For a while I felt I could get by with Tunnels and Trolls solo play. It hasn't really panned out for me because of a feeling of 'so what' that I felt when playing. This may not be others' feeling, of course, but for me the acquisition of combat dice, XP, levels, spells, and gold hasn't really given me a good motivation to keep going. In my loss, I am not feeling the "need for greed" that a power-gamer or character builder is feeling.

The individual adventures are fun, and I should give them another chance. I just have this feeling I need something a little more, something more group focused and less single player focused, and something more story and character-history focused.

M2E Traveller

So on a whim I got the 2nd Edition of Mongoose's Traveller game. I got the starter set because people said it was a streamlined version better for new players, and that seemed to appeal to me because of my time limitations and desire for OSR simplicity.

The game seemed like previous editions, and I read through the books, casually happy with the game but not feeling a commitment to play. This one felt like it was going to sit on the shelf next to the others and I would be back to searching again.

And then I generated a character.

One Character Opened the Stars

Wow. That is all I can say about the character creation system in Traveller. This isn't a fresh-faced newbie, but someone with scars, history, rivals, enemies, injuries, good moments, massive debts, bad moments, losing their job, going to jail, getting involved in a war, having something great happen, losing their crew, been through hell and back character.

A complete story before we begin, and someone I feel like I know personally because I have been there with them the whole time.

And then I watched a Youtube video on character creation, and you do this as a group, and other players' characters can get involved in your timeline as people you know, met, became rivals with, friends with, or bumped into along the way as you made your way through life. Not only does the character generation system develop a rich backstory for you, but it gives the entire group plenty of moments to figure out ways they met and know each other across a vast universe of infinite stars.

Amazing stuff.

They have solved the problem of "how do we know each other" through character creation. You no longer have to bump into each other in a bar, your characters have potentially met time and time again before this moment. You may know each other already before you begin. If not, you could easily figure out relationships given the connections that have already been created through a couple easy assumptions.

Let's say character A and B bumped into each other and became rivals. Character C has no connection to them after character creation, but both characters B and C spent a tour of duty in the Space Marines. You could easily say "these two were squadmates" and connect the three of them. The links you create become the strong framework in which to pull in everyone else.

And then your group gets to distribute "group skills" that ensure you are well prepared to do the campaign of your choice. If you are running a merchant campaign, the group package ensures your group has the basic "need this for being a merchant" skills in the party.

And now I want to generate another character, and see their story, and how I can tie them into the first character's story. And another...

Or better yet, design the entire party at the same time and see how I can get them all to meet.

Write Your History Down!

On the back of my character sheet, I made sure to write the events of my character's history down, term-by-term, the events that happened, the skills gained, the rolls made and failed, the enemies/allies/rivals gained, and every result of every roll made. Even "barely passed the survival roll" or "just failed the advancement roll" matters! Do this for every term spent in character creation, and then look back at your character's history and be amazed.

You can then use that list as your character's personal backstory and history, and it gives you things to talk about and roleplay with. "Yeah, the piracy scourge of 12 years ago was pretty bad, I barely managed to live through that, but I did get a commission out of the entire campaign after us Marines were done clearing out the pirate bases in that asteroid field." Okay that bit of background information with the referee, giving your barely made survival roll and commission result, and your character's history is richer along with the universe's history as well.

And just perhaps, that bit of history may come up again should ships start disappearing around those asteroids again...

"Hey, I know about that place...!"

I can see this character background history becoming indispensable for referees. Now your characters are connected to events in the subsector, and those become tools to use for future stories.

I love writing and recording my character's history during character creation, and I can see doing that for every character I create. Every bit of info is something you can use, along with the time that it happened, and what happened as a result. I will even leave a little space on each term of service to add details and more information as this is developed through play.

A Personal Connection

Until I gave the game a chance, played it, I felt differently about it. I guess maybe I have been distracted as of late, and assumed "this edition was like the rest." I need to do some more, like play through a sample adventure, get some combat, exploration, trade, psionics, encounters, and starship combat under my belt, and give more parts of the game a chance. I plan on doing that very soon.

But moreso, this game strikes a chord in me with that deeper and story-based character creation. It writes a history of someone I didn't know, but I do now. I am invested in, I am interested in, and I want to see what happens next.

Even by myself, this feels like the game I have been looking for and needing to play.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Mail Room: Cepheus Modern


Cehpeus Modern is an interesting mod to the Cepheus Light system to cover modern gaming using the 2d6 style of sci-fi roleplaying system. I picked this up because a complete set of animal rules were in here, they had a vehicle combat system, some magic and cybernetics, and I liked the tight feel to this set of rules.

Light and Fast

I liked that this was a bottom-floor sort of modern-game, really basic and fast with familiar rules. If I wanted to play out an action scene or quick scenario from a movie, this feels really good and I could get in and going quick with a pretty good sized cast of disposable cast members. I wanted to have this to go along with the Solo play system for the Cepheus Engine in order to cover modern scenarios without the sci-fi flavor of the basic rules.

If I want to play a scene in a modern war, heist, action, monster, or other movie this set of rules really fits my needs. I can spin up the 5-6 person cast in about 30 minutes. I can get playing quick, the rules fit in my head, and that is a good thing.

Not as Zero-Based and Specialized

One interesting point is the rules are not as focused on zero-based skills as the basic Cepheus Engine or even M2E Traveller. I feel this is a result of the bounded accuracy style balancing that has been implemented in the newer editions that keeps skill bonuses down to lower numbers, and splits out a lot of skills into specialty areas that force you to specialize. Cepheus Modern feels more old-school with less skills, higher skill levels, and a faster advancement track.

There are no real broken-out specialty skills here, just a basic list of broad skill areas of knowledge. One engineering skill, one pilot skill, one gun combat skill, and so on. I feel this is good for a lighter-weight game as I spend a lot of time in M2E Traveller going over skill lists, picking specialties, and looking up what covers what. A broad skill list with specialties allows greater character customization and also keeps skill levels down through more choices, so M2E Traveller (and also Cepheus Engine) are better "character builder" games in my feeling.

More Career Options Wanted

I wanted more options for careers in a modern setting. I know, this is OGL, write your own! I just may do that. Specifically, I wanted entertainer, technology, industry, and politician careers. Something more than just business and rogue for non-military career options. But yes I know, having more careers would take away from the light-and-fast nature of the game. But still, I wanted a little balance between military and non-military background options for a modern setting. I just may write these up since it seems simple enough.

Vehicle Rules Improvements

One odd side-effect of the vehicle rules were car chases with pistols and SMG shootouts did not really have a chance to affect the vehicles or passengers. You need a weapon capable of "vehicle damage" that rolls against a vehicle's protection value in order to get onto the damage tables, which include chances for blow-out tires or passenger hits.

I would handle this two ways. Firing at passengers is full cover (-2), if from a moving vehicle -1) and if at a moving vehicle (-1) so a -4 DRM total. Or, just use the normal vehicle targeting and combat rules but give most projectile weapons a AV of d3 so they can affect smaller cars and get table results. There is also the possibility of called shots to tires and other areas with smaller weapons as well.

Perfect for Solo

I like this rules set for quick one-off modern scenarios with the Solo rules, even using this for more sci-fi games when running a "monster in space" type scenario. In that type of game, a pilot is "the pilot in the movie" and same goes for "the engineer" and "the doctor." In a quick game, I am not interested in complicated character builds, detailed histories, and I am more interested in broader roles and faster character generation.

There is a Cepheus Light game available and I may want to check that out, since that is what this rules set is based on, and that seems to be a lighter version of the base sci-fi game. There is a difference between a full-game, such as M2E Traveller and Cepheus Engine, and the lighter faster-to-play options such as Cepheus Modern and Cepheus Light - and I am a fan of both rules styles. There are times I want deep and complex, and other times I want light and fast. I like having the option to switch styles and keep everything mostly compatible and working the same.

I like this set of rules and the entire product line, all of this feels like it is perfect for me at this moment and my moods. I can dive into deeper games where characters are rich and complex, or I can go fast and loose with something quick and rocket through a play session without too much investment and time. Overall, a great mix of rules and options for complexity, and I am happy with my purchases here.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Traveller: Ship Diversity

One thing I like about Traveller's starships is they are so diverse and cool. You could design anything in any shape and still have it work within the default setting or one of your own. With the default ships given in the basic rules - you still have a wide variety of designs, shapes, and concepts all coming together for a fun and diverse mix of styles and shapes.

You see this design ethos tend to standardize itself in sci-fi movies. In Star Trek, all ships tend to follow the same design theory. You have engine sponsons, large upper disks, small main hulls, and a general flat deck design. Star Wars is a bit more diverse, but you still end up with the same flat desk cruisers and small ships, with a wider variety of fighter shapes. There are a couple different styles of ships in Traveller for a fun mix of hulls and design concepts, and you see those come together nicely and in a seamless blend.

Flat Deck Ships

These are your typical flat-deck designs, you land on a planet, and the decks are aligned parallel to the ground. Walk-in and walk off. A lot of games and sci-fi assume this design since it is very familiar, and makes starships seem like space trucks. And this is also cheaper to film since you are not dealing with an orientation change when you film people getting in and out.

Antigravity is very important with flat deck ships, since acceleration would force everyone to the "back" of the ship in the opposite direction of the thrust.

Space Stations

I like the laboratory ship design in the book, it is a spinning wheel type ship and very cool. Not many other sci-fi games have starships that look like space stations and this game celebrates them. This is also one of those classic designs from one of the old Traveller adventures, and it is good to see it held up as an example of a cool design. It reminds me of movies like Interstellar and that just makes me smile.

You need antigravity in these ships when they are accelerating, because you run into the same "forced back" issue as flat deck ships (unless there is a second and third opposing floor set on the ring). When stationary, they can minimize the energy needed to maintain artificial gravity by rotating the ring. With solar panels I bet these ships could have incredible endurance sitting in one place and still maintain a comfortable living environment.

Stacked Hulls

Stacked hulls are starships with decks arranged like a loaf of bread. If you landed on a planet (if you could) half of the deck would be pointing down and the other half up in the air, and without artificial gravity everyone would fall to one side. These types of ships were popular also in the original Star Frontiers game, and that threw our expectations since we had assumed a more flat deck style coming from games like Space Opera.

Stacked hulls get around the problem of not having anti-gravity if all you have is 1G acceleration. You accelerate towards a point in space at 1G and keep the decks down, and everyone inside has normal gravity due to acceleration. Mid-point, you flip the ship so the engines point at the destination (something which all Traveller ships do anyways no matter what thrust rating), and fire off the engines at 1G of deceleration and all of a sudden you have normal gravity going towards the "floor" again. Without antigravity, this is how you do space travel, and stacked hulls make this possible.

Older ships in my games are nearly all stacked hulls from pre anti-gravity days, and these still see use. Hey, space is expensive and if you can re-use old ones for in-system work, who cares? That is why we pay you spacers the big bucks, now deal with our lowest bid contract. Just be thankful we didn't pay more money for a new ship since that would be coming out of your pay.

Hey, economics and cheap business practices don't go away just because we are in the future.

Not All the Best Stuff

This one I love. Most of the ships in the basic rulebook are Jump-1 and Jump-2 designs, with only a couple being Jump-3. Thrusts are similarly contained to low numbers. All the designs assume a TL12 baseline, and there are no Jump-6 and very few Thrust-6 ships in the book. I like this, and for the most part the universe should be a lower tech level than the maximum, and the maximum TL designs should be limited to very rare ship designs and specific situations. Not even if a world has billions of people should you assume the TL of its cultures is TL15. You should not walk into a starport, even the best one, and see shelves full of TL15 ship parts waiting for installation and purchase.

Like all technology, only certain militaries and governments are going to have the best stuff. And in a backwater sector or lower-tech game, you may never see the best stuff come around.

High-tech ship parts and personal gear are your "magic items" in a sci-fi game with a range of technology levels. Keep the baseline to "just what works" and keep the good stuff out of reach for rewards and goals. None of this great high-tech stuff should be purchasable, only on black markets and then that is even risky and could be a setup or swindle. Some high-tech gear should ideally be of alien design and require specialized knowledge (or an alien who understands it) to maintain and use.

Our sci-fi RPGs suffered from this "arms race" style of problem where the technology level and utility of starship parts kept increasing, and after a while starship combat and operations became unfun or total-destruction-or-nothing. Like those episodes of Star Trek where you can sit there in your ship and talk about problems, knowing nothing rules-wise can affect you. It got boring quick, and devolved into gotcha situations.

Maps!

I love the maps of the ships, and seeing them done in perspective is very cool. I love the idea of a sci-fi game with standardized ships. You know what to expect, the ships themselves become "knowable" and familiar, and surprises are still possible with tweaked designs but there is still an element of similar design in custom jobs.

Sometimes I feel sci-fi properties go overboard with custom ship designs just to look cool or be different. I like the classic Star Wars ships, and seeing them reused and come up again and again is very cool and hits my nostalgia button. However, there is a point where there feels like too many ships in that universe, every time we see a movie there are different ones, and I something in the back of my mind tells me they need to build these things on an assembly line and standardize. They must all be going broke.

Traveller, assuming a game that says "90% of the ships are standard designs," takes on a coolness factor where these things are mass produced and you get what you get. I can't go to a car company and say "I need an SUV, and I need it custom designed..." Well, if I were Elon Musk I could, but for most people, no, you buy a car from what's out there - new or used. If 90% of the ships made were "the ones that worked" and those are the ones from the book, that is what you are going to find and be using most of the time.

And that makes the special and unique ships out there rare and notable, which is a good thing because once you see something special, you get that wonder and surprise back. If everything is special, nothing is special.

Fun Classics

I like this version of the game and the updated take on back to the basics. This is hitting the right notes for me, and seeing these old friends come back and be celebrated again warms my gamer heart. The diversity of designs is also cool, and it is fun to see even movies made today reflect these designs and give us a new look inside them. No other sci-fi game really does that as well, and this is like seeing an old friend again who is doing just fine.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Mail Room: Cepheus Engine RPG


So someone went and took the M1E Traveller SRD and built a numbers-filed-off sci-fi game out of it that is functionally equivalent to M1E Traveller? This is what I love about OGL games, once one goes away (as that license did with M2E Traveller), a new game can be made to keep to flame going.

And thus, an OGL game like Traveller is born, but the strange part is, this is not Traveller. This is more generic hard-science roleplaying and a toolkit to take anywhere, develop new games with, and I am betting it goes new places from this point forward.

As Basic Fantasy, Mutant Future, and Labyrinth Lord became their own similar-yet-unique things, so shall this.

I am still loving and playing M2E Traveller, so why would I be interested in this? Because is is OGL and a lot of OSR in a sci-fi package. It feels rules-light. It pushes my M2E Traveller experience more back towards the 3rd Imperium, which honestly is the strength of that setting (but I still like DIY settings).

But the fact I like DIY settings makes me interested in this. With this, I could take my DIY setting and publish the thing. Spin up worlds, design ships, and get it published and share. It is a potent argument for putting my DIY ideas here while keeping M2E Traveller more tied to the official setting.

A Modern Option

Cepheus Engine RPG has a "modern" game as a pay-what-you-want option made out of the rules, which honestly the original Traveller made the house rules for my brother and I for our Car Wars RPG campaign forever in the 1980's. We used Car Wars for the vehicle rules, and Traveller for the interpersonal rules. It was a natural fit because the skill systems, 2d6 to-hit systems, and everything worked so damn well together. To have a OGL modern rules set just like the original Traveller system takes me back to my Car Wars days, and one of the best campaigns I have ever run.

It also held up very well, dealing with mutants, superheroes, vehicle battles, tanks, jet fighters, spy missions, intrigue, advancement, monsters, magic, and anything we could throw at it by the end of that game.

Want a superpower? Flight is a skill, rated from 0 to 5, and we made a speed chart. Armor powers? The same, but with a protection value on a chart. Want magic? A school of magic is a skill, such as evocation, rated with a skill level from 0 to 5, with damages and effects rated on a chart. It worked, and it worked damn well. The 2d6 Traveller-like system is a very versatile and expressive system and I love that is has escaped into the wild via the OGL.

I would love to even see a fantasy game based on this. I have the freedom to write one, if I wish. I could take OGL parts from OGL games, mash everything together, and come up with a mutant hybrid 2d6 fantasy game. A post-apocalyptic game. A superhero game. Whatever I want I get with the OGL, even if I make it myself and share.

People forget this. While I love my shiny new editions, and M2E Traveller feels a lot a like like 5th Edition D&D to me with its polish and speed of play, my OGL books will always be treasured for the dreams they came from, and the dreams and adventures they will continue to give humanity for all time.

OGL games are gifts to the world.

Celebrate them and cherish them, and it is great to see the birth of another.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Our Shortest Traveller Campaign


I think my brother and I were kids at the time, about 10 years old, and we played the Annic Nova adventure (out of Double Adventures 1) as we just got into Traveller. I was refereeing and my brother was playing. The adventure looked cool, a mysterious ship abandoned for some reason with plenty of mysteries to unfold. How this ended didn't work out how we planned.

Spooky Ship, not a Dungeon

Like most kids of the time, combat was fun and exciting. We ran modules as-is and rarely expanded upon them, having this expectation that the module writers knew better than us and paying for a module meant we were going to be entertained - no matter what our expectations were.

Yes, that is a recipe for disaster. We were kids.

Looking back, yes we were wrong and our expectations were out of line. We expected everything to be action-packed and a blast of a good time, and our expectations were kind of set by the excellent Star Frontiers game, which defined a huge part of our childhoods. Grab a laser and blast monsters! Play cool aliens! Explore lost worlds! Hack computers and robots! Fight the evil bug-eyed aliens!

That Star Frontiers campaign lasted 40 years. Such is the power of childhood memories.

So, Traveller and Annic Nova. I have a better appreciation for this adventure now, and I can think of a million better ways to have run this. Add some strange monsters, and maybe a surface installation down on the planet below to explore. Add some monsters or strange goings on. Fragments of ship's logs and a crew being slowly driven into madness. Space pirates looking to take the ship without knowing what they are getting into.

This ship is really cool and a great set for a lot of different ideas.

How It Really Ended

Explore the ship, fly it back to the starport, and sell it. Earn 5 million credits (or was it 25, it has been a while...?) and sit on a pile of money. Campaign over.

I know, we were kids, but millions of credits seemed like being a billionaire to us! You can buy any weapon or piece of gear! A small army of mercenaries! The PCs were rich!

I know, that many MCR is not exactly rich in the context of Traveller, but our young minds could not process what to do with all that money so that is where the campaign kind of ended. We were trained by the D&D model of wealth, where with 5 million GP you could hire an army of red dragons and genies with wish rings to ride around on them. You won. The rich were invincible.

Yes, we were stupid and young.

Still Good Advice

A game can become unplayable if the Travellers become too powerful.
This comes from page 4, book 3, in the scenario book The Fall of Tinath for the starter set of Traveller I got the other day. There is a paragraph here saying the same thing, as a referee, you need to keep the players hungry, looking for money, never dropping huge buckets of wealth upon them, avoid the "battle cruiser mentality," and make sure special powers and other perks are paced out throughout the campaign (and even lost at times) instead of making the game about a mad collection of wealth and special powers.

Sounds like many of the Pathfinder or D&D games I have run, in fact.

Too much wealth can ruin a game. Too many cool powers can ruin a game. Battleship Me and All My Friends can ruin a game.

Missing the Point

Part of my brain says, "You are missing the point!" No matter how much money you have Traveller is still a pretty deadly game. A stray shot or a bad starship encounter later, and it is, "Game over, man." It is all about immersion, the stories, the personalities, the factions, the plots, aliens, criminals, colony governments (and the people in them), and the unexplored universe.

Yes, having 5 billion credits makes a lot of this pointless.

But you should be ready for the day the PCs have five billion credits. Perhaps a title of nobility is bestowed upon the character, and all of a sudden a lot of factions and governments come looking for financial backing for colony projects, expeditions, infrastructure projects through monster-infested colony sites, and even backing a war with cash for later profits. There are two universal truths in our world that are helpful to remember:
Money does not solve problems.
Money creates problems.
Jealous rivals? Being labeled the reason why the subsector is so poor? Governments who see your rich wallet as a threat to subsector stability? Criminals and pirates looking for a quick paycheck for kidnapping, piracy, theft, or raiding your assets? A hostile press creating all sorts of lies about you, unless, of course, you support them? Politicians who would label you an enemy if you didn't pay up and support their side? The other side that hates you now that you do? A totalitarian regime seeking to end your character's influence and claim your resources and colony investments? Tax-happy planets wanting you to pay your fair share? Terrorist/pirate factions seizing your subsector investments "for the people" or themselves? Other companies wanting to know "where you stand" on expensive conflicts that hurt their businesses? Alien factions looking for "support" and a voice?

All jealous and greedy people need are a reason, and greed and envy are great reasons.

You look at the richest places in today's world and how many problems money creates, and you realize that maybe money isn't such a big problem after all, but an opportunity for trouble that can write thousands of interesting stories.

No to Invincibles, Yes to Fun

The advice is good not to let a party gather so many powers they have an answer to everything. It is good to keep players hungry. No invincible superheroes. Yes struggling spacers.

However, I feel it is very important to start the players out seeing the consequences of their goals. Put some conflicts in the universe that affect them that are caused by greed and envy, where money and the lust for power is sending the people of the universe to their deaths over "who owns what?" It is a pointless, greedy, negative theme for a sci-fi game where normally the ideals of Star Trek or Star Wars push characters into "greater good" feelings.

Traveller isn't really about the greater good. It is a universe sandbox. You could play this like Grand Theft Auto with lasers and bug-eyed aliens and hit all the right points. Money and greed should be constant themes, because a player's goals should be reflected in the universe around them.

Show them the consequences of greed early. Set the tone. Keep them hungry. Let them choose sides.

If they want to join in and celebrate greed and backstabbing, let them.

If they want to fight against greed for a greater good and unity, let them.

The hidden end-game in Traveller plays out nicely as a wealthy faction the PCs control that finds out how much the subsector loves or hates them. Or both.

And the next generation of PCs can start after that story ends. Is there peace in the subsector? War? Economic opportunity? A subsector depression? Piracy? Revolution? Is it time to explore new frontiers? Write the history of one era, and move on to the next.

Tomorrow, Yesterday, and Today

Part of the mistake we made as kids was not to see this, and not make this an option. The universe felt empty and who cared? It was a different time, and there were other games with built-in motivations that captured our imaginations. The pre-made universes of other games gave us instant starting points and places to jump in..

But today, I like dreaming and I like creating. I like a more open sandbox in which to play in. I want blank canvases for my ideas instead of pre-made posters with copyrighted content.

I look back and wonder what if? I read this new edition and my mind explores infinite possibilities. Those thoughts come back and I want to share what went wrong, what our mistakes were, and how I would have done things differently. How maybe there wasn't any good options given how the games were written back then, and how the games today have learned from those mistakes. Also, I like reflecting on history and our world and using that for stories in this world.

Part of what I like about Traveller is that the game is simple, yet it has enough defined parts that work together that become limitations to explore within. It is not a generic game such as FATE where anything goes and it is more about story and less about interesting parts. You have a toy box, some rules on how all this works together, and an open sandbox to play in.