Monday, August 26, 2019

Mail Room: Cepheus Light

Cepheus Light is an interesting game. If Cepheus Engine is the "OGL reference document" for the original game system, then Cepheus Light is the game taken off in an entirely new and interesting direction. To me, it feels like Cepheus Light is a gameplay-focused "version 2.0" of the game's rules without it having to be encumbered by compatibility issues.

Isn't this just the same rules, just a different package? Well, no, not exactly. Does it matter which one you play? Perhaps. Let us go over the differences before we talk about the bigger picture.

Simplified Skill List

A note about the Cepheus Engine Core and System Reference Document: Cepheus Light skills are somewhat different than the ones included in the Cepheus Engine core rules but are easily compatible. Most notably, Repair is the combination of Electronics and Mechanics; Admin subsumes the Advocate skill; Carousing subsumes the Gambling skill; Piloting subsumes the Navigation skill; and Deception is roughly equivalent to certain uses of Carousing and Streetwise in the core rules.
-page 30, Cepheus Light rule book
The above is the most important paragraph in the book when it comes to differences between Cepheus Engine and Cepheus Light. They combined skills, simplified, folded things together in logical ways, created"pop fun skills" for common RP play styles (deception), and reduced skill bloat in ways that made sense for a more "popcorn sci-fi" style of game.

Of course Han Solo knows how to navigate! Isn't that a part of flying a starship? Fix something? That is the repair skill! Fix a starship-related? Engineering! Computers covers the communication skill. It is that sort of logic which I find interesting, and it highlights the differences between the games. Cepheus Light is sort of a fun B-Movie sci-fi game to me where the roles are boiled down to their movie essences, where Cepheus Engine is the more traditional, more compatible homage to the original rules.

No Specialty Skills

There are also no specialty skills in Cepheus Light. Gun Combat covers bows. Piloting covers all flying and spacecraft. Driving covers all ground vehicles. Science is all science. You have less specialization, and the roles are more iconic and broadly painted. Again, I see this is as B-Movie sci-fi logic, Han Solo is a pilot, he should be able to get in and fly a winged aircraft. We don't need to spend 10 minutes of the movie watching him train for this because of the slight differences between starship piloting and winged aircraft piloting - B-movie logic makes it so.

And then feeling the pain of watching him get lost because he didn't take a navigator along.

Table Play Skills

There are also the "table play" skills like deception added that create rules for common situations that happen at gaming tables. It is interesting to see these added because it reflects a system that is more player and table-fun oriented with skills that cover the classic situations that come up during pen-and-paper games. Stealth is another table-play skill in this set that isn't in Cepheus Engine, and also the Investigation skill falls into this area as well. These are skills frequently used during play because "these are skills the referee needs and the players love to use."

I still like Cepheus Engine because it feels like the AD&D sort of advanced, compatible, detailed, skills-matter system that lets me create specialized, deep, and complex characters when I am in that mood. And I like Cepheus Light for the more popcorn B-Movie characters that are more focused on roles than rules.

Bring on the Stunners and Blasters!

Another thing I like about these "breakout OGL games" that step apart from their host systems is that they are taken in different directions, and they don't feel obliged to stick to the source material. We get classic sci-fi blasters and stunners in addition to lasers here. LMGs make an appearance.

Note that while Cepheus Light's equipment list has some more of the traditional B-Movie sci-fi gear, it is not as complete and extensive as Cepheus Engine's equipment lists. We have basic robots in Cepheus Light, but Cepheus Engine has options for those robots.

It is true that if you are making a generic sci-fi game, you probably want to pare down the gear list to a more basic core set of items and let the referee and gaming group come up with most of it. However, I like the gear options in Cepheus Engine quite a lot and that list feels more complete and new-player friendly. I don't want to have new players asking "can we have this" and the item isn't in the book or the option isn't there.

But then again, if you are more generic-focused why would you want "a lot of stuff you will never use" in the first place? There is a trade-off here in the gear lists to be aware of, Cepheus Engine is more extensive and complete, but limited to the setting it emulates. Cepheus Light is more classic sci-fi inspired, but more basic and less specific. I can see why the gear list was cleaned up. Less is more, and if you are emulating a specific setting you do not want a lot of junk you will never use (and you will create a lot of it yourself anyways).

Another key difference is in the weapon stats. Cepheus Light introduces new firing modes for some guns, such as double-tap, and also vehicle damage ratings that Cepheus Engine does not have. The equipment lists are compatible if you use the Cepheus Light versions as a super-set of "how things work now" and extend the gear list in Engine to suit.

Cepheus Light: Heavy Wanted

I would love to see a huge Space Opera style version of this game with expanded careers, equipment, starships, and so on and pulling from generic sci-fi more so than classic Traveller style games. This game feels generic enough and flexible enough to be one of those "generic space games" that can either be molded to do anything, or expanded to do everything.

I know, this is a light rules set, why do you want everything when you have most of it in or adding Engine? Because I like the direction here, the improvements, and the focus on generic sci-fi as a starting point instead of emulation of established material. To me, the strength of this is a catch-all style of "D&D in space" that can do for sci-fi what D&D did for fantasy.

Extensive Examples of Play

There are a lot of examples of play in Cepheus Light, more than in Engine. They take up quite a few pages in such a short book (with 8 pages on personal combat covering 2 different battles), and get a feeling I would like to see them cut down just a little bit to a page or two each and simplified to the core rules concepts they present. They are fun, full of flavor, and instructive, just I get the feeling they are a bit on the long side for a rules set that is focusing on the basics. I get why they are here though and they are appreciated, regardless.

POD On Lulu

Note, the POD hardcopies can be found on Lulu, not DriveThruRPG. The latest word as of this writing is that DTRPG POD versions were coming soon. I opted for the smaller digest version of the POD copy there because I am a fan of small books.


Do I really need another Traveller-like game? Not really but yes.

I like M2E Traveller a lot (like how I like my never-played copy of D&D 5E), and to me the strength of that set of rules is the setting. I can see why there are a lot of gamers embracing the 3rd Imperium these days for M2E Traveller - the rules and flavor fit, and if you are going to use the rules, you might as well dive in and explore a rich and varied setting.

Cepheus Engine? This is my "will always live on" OGL version of M1E Traveller. It is important for compatibility, archival, and historical reasons. It is useful as a "gear and stuff book" for Cepheus Light as well should you take the game in that direction, but it isn't really needed. Would I still play this? Without the 3rd Imperium, yes. Once you remove the strength of that setting new things become possible. Although just sticking with M2E Traveller for my DIY universes is also an attractive possibility, and still an option. This is probably the least compelling game for me of the three to play at the moment, just because of M2E's strengths. Still, this is a fun book to read and imagine with, and definitely worth supporting.

Cepheus Light? I like this like I like Cepheus Modern, which this game is a parent of. What is attractive here is the simplification of the rules and more popcorn feeling of generic sci-fi action and roles. I could see using this game to play fast-and-loose games covering 1950's classic sci-fi black and white movies and TV shows. This also works well with the Solo rules set for solo play. Of the three, this (and Modern) are my first choices for quick one-shot solo play, but it still remains behind M2E Traveller for deep, extended campaign play.

I like this entire line really, and it is great to see the OGL community stepping up to preserve, extend, and expand another set of rules in ways we could not have imagined when the original OGL rules were first released.

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 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.


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 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.