Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Traveller Skills and Setting Part 5

In a game called Traveller, you know there will be VEHICLES
The other posts in this series are here, here, here, and here.

Who needs contra-gravity when you've got one of these?
          The Vehicle skills were there to enable the PCs to travel around while on a world. They are:
  • Air/raft (the basic contragravity car)
  • ATV (All Terrain Vehicle) 
  • Ship's Boat 
  • Aircraft, of several types 
  • Tracked vehicles 
  • Wheeled vehicles
  • Watercraft, of several types
  • There was also a Vehicle cascade skill, where the player could choose a type
           The vehicles presented suggest, much as the weapons skills do, that there are varying degrees of technological development throughout the setting. They also tell us about the geography of the worlds. Travellers can expect to encounter all kinds of terrain in their wanderings, and there are vehicles to match. Here's a detail that I have overlooked for a very long time from the Vehicle skill description:

          "Vehicle skill . . . may also be used for assistance in repairing and maintaining a vehicle"

          I had always gone with general Mechanical skill as the necessary to repair a vehicle, but the skill is actually a vehicle-specific mechanical skill.

          There are ground huggers, wheeled for easy terrain, roads & prairies and such, and tracked for rougher ground. Aircraft and contra-gravity craft are for covering a lot of ground quickly, on worlds where the inhabited areas are widely spread. There will be waterborne exploration as well, both on the surface (hovercraft, large boats) and in the depths (submarines). 

Still awesome, even in the 51st century.

           Ship's boat is included with the Vehicle skills despite it being for operating small space craft carried aboard larger ones. Ship's Boats can go from the surface to orbit and beyond, which points to inhabited orbital stations, or colonies on the moon, too far for an air/raft but too close to need a starship.


Adventure calls. Are you up for it?
           Given this cursory overview, and without having any prior knowledge of science fiction literature, and without seeing any of the official setting publications that followed, a gamer in 1977 could open up the Traveller Little Black Books and create a setting that is:
  • a big, potentially infinite galaxy
  • open to travel and exploration
  • inhabited in some places and unexplored in others
  • primitive in some places and advanced in others
  • potentially unified culturally if not politically 
  • inhabited by several cultural/political groups which either cooperate or conflict with each other
  • expanding its cultural reach or shrinking from the frontier
  • a dangerous place to go about in, whether in space or on land
  • subject to wars, crime, and all manner of plagues upon mankind
  • ripe with opportunity for the skilled, the bold and the daring.
  • One where the PCs can be major powers or part of the masses.
  • Limited only by the imagination of the players & the referee.
           Yes, that sounds like the Traveller I have played and enjoyed for thirty years. 

Does this change anything about the way we play Traveller in the 21st century?  

Is there a significant aspect of the original skills that I'm missing?  

For another POV on the Classic Traveller skills, check out this post at Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog. 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Traveller Skills and Setting part 4

We all need a little savoir-faire.

"So our mission this week will take us into Zhodani space . . ."  "What?!?"
The Social skills are all about getting NPC's to cooperate, or do what the PC's want them to do. These skills are:

·         Administration
·         Bribery
·         Forgery
·         Leadership
·         Streetwise

          Traveller has no generic Charisma stat, nor a general Persuasion skill – each of the five social skills covers an particular kind of interpersonal situation. It seems reasonable for some of the Social skills to play a part in getting a favorable reaction from an NPC, beyond what the skill description states.

A side thought about Streetwise. The description of this skill mentions how sub-cultures tend to be similar wherever one goes, but I had always thought of it in terms of lower class sub-cultures. Is not the Aristocracy its own sub-culture?  So a character with high SOC and Streetwise skill can move with and influence the rich & famous.

Streetwise also shows that the different worlds in the setting at least may have a common social history, if sub-cultures on different worlds all share common characteristics. So, the worlds have some amount of cultural unity despite the distance between them. Of course there can always be interstellar states that are culturally unified within but distinct and separate from other states.

In a curious move Bribery is mentioned in the Trade & Commerce section as being useful for influencing the purchase and sale price of speculative cargo. The Merchant career, which offers Bribery skill, has pointed many Traveller players in the direction of becoming Free Traders, wandering from planet to planet, buying and selling goods.

Leadership skill can be used anywhere there are people, but the rest of the social skills presuppose organized societies. There is nothing stopping the PCs from going back and forth between those two areas, but the social skills require that civilized area exist. Otherwise, why have them? Leadership in particular is about motivating others, so it should be useful as a reaction bonus.

Social interaction is part of the setting, without specifying to what ends those skills should be employed. Two of these skills are generally illegal to employ – so an element of lawlessness exists, even in the civilized parts of the setting.The PCs can be either part of that lawlessness, or avoid it, or be actively working against it.

The outcome of every  other kind of social interaction is determined by the Reaction table in the Encounters section. In comparison with more modern games, it is a pretty simple table, requiring the Referee to interpret and translate the result. Doing police investigations, trying to get a date, running for political office or engaging in other criminal activities are left to the role playing skill of the player and the flexibility of the Referee.

This is the fourth post in the series. Posts one two and three are here, here and here.

Next up: the Vehicle skills and my Summary.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Traveller Skills and Setting part 3

Bring out the Big Guns!
Go ahead, space Punk. Make my day.

     The Weapons skills (excluding Gunnery, which I moved to space) fall into two broad categories, blade/hand weapons, and guns.

     Wait, I thought this was a science fiction game in the far future. Why do we need swords and pikes? As well as:
  • daggers
  • foils
  • clubs
  • fists (Brawling skill)
  • broadswords
  • axes
  • long and short bows
  • halberds
  • spears
  • and the Marine favorite, the cutlass!
     This is often leveled at Traveller as a criticism, but not one that is well founded. Any number of sci-fi novels have characters who wield swords & spears, Norton's Voodoo Planet and Pournelle's King David's Spaceship, just to name two. So the designers included them to keep that bit of color in the setting. Recent and well-regarded sci-fi TV shows like Firefly and Dark Matter have characters wielding swords & knives in a 'starships & spacemen' setting and it works just fine.

Laser may beat Spear, unless Spear gets too close. That's why it has Shield.
 The existence of blade skill indicates the existence of low-tech or primitive societies in the setting. PCs could be from these low-tech areas, or have experience with them reflected in their possession of hand-to-hand weapon skills. In either case, technological advancement is not spread evenly throughout the setting. Some worlds have higher tech than others.

The attentive player will notice in the combat section that swords and spears will kill their PCs just as quickly and easily as guns will. 

The list of guns available also point to a diversity of technological achievement among worlds in the setting. I have been told that pre-industrial firearms were meant to be included in the LBBs but weren't for some reason. The guns presented are all generic types rather than specific models:
  • body pistols (the pocket pistol)
  • automatic pistols
  • revolvers
  • carbines
  • rifle
  • automatic rifles
  • shotguns (nothing says Traveller like shotguns in space!)
  • laser carbines
  • laser rifles
The assumption is that these generic types can be found anywhere, and reinforces the idea from Streetwise of all the planets in the setting having some amount of common history.

As a practical matter, bullets will kill PCs as quickly as death rays and blaster bolts will. But for those who wanted them, Mercenary introduced some more futuristic weapons including the terrifying fusion gun. This thing will not only kill you, it will reduce you to a smoking pair of boots. 

It's called science fiction adventure in the far future, so there have to be laser weapons, something which was not available on Earth in the late 1970's, to give it a future feel. Another criticism leveled at Traveller was the limited selection of 'blasters' and other sci-fi weapons. Fair enough, until you read some of the novels that inspired the game – H Beam Piper in particular armed his characters with the kinds of weapons he was familiar with – pistols and rifles. Firefly came along much later, and it employed projectile weapons in a spaceship setting without anything seeming out of place.

In a more general sense, both the blades and the guns say that the setting is a potentially dangerous one, and that not all goals can be achieved with the social skills. When those fail, the weapons come out.
Some players have expressed the opinion that weapons in Traveller were deadly so that players would think twice about getting into combat. The theory goes that combat can result in death, and pretty quick death, so get out those social skills and try to resolve the disagreement with skills and role-playing instead. 

So let's talk about the social skills next.
Part One of this series is here.
Part Two of this series is here.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Traveller Skills and Setting part 2

The Technical Skills
part one is here.

The Technical skills can be further broken down into two sub-categories which I call Repair and Probabilities.Repair includes :
  • Computer
  • Electronics
  • Medical
  • Mechanical
  • Jack of all Trades
      All of these skills involve the use of tools & training to make, modify, repair and occasionally break physical systems. Characters with these skills were expected to deal with these kinds of problems themselves, and from this we can interpret a setting outside of 'civilization' where repair services will not be available for hire. Again this points to exploration of uninhabited areas.

      These skill categories are pretty general, which means the PCs are generalists, not specialists. "Oh, I can't fix that contra-grav car, I only work on plumbing" is not very helpful. Players can choose to have a specialty as part of their PC's backstory, but I apply the skills broadly for ease of play. The PCs are masters of their fates, plying their skills towards all manner of goals.

      The equipment list is also pretty sparse, which keeps the skills in the foreground of problem solving – it's not about whether you have a sonic screwdriver, but whether you have Mechanical skill, and some imagination.If you've got the skills, you can improvise tools and succeed. If you have the tools but no skills, you've got a problem. 

     In the games I run, PCs are free to try anything, even if they do not have the appropriate skill. I impose a pretty hefty -DM for lacking the skill but at least they have a chance and are encouraged to try. Some skill descriptions specify a penalty or action not allowed without the skill, but not many.  I allow Jack-of-All-Trades skill levels to offset the -DM but never to add a +DM.

The skills in the Probabilities group are:
  • Tactics
  • Forward Observer
  • Gambling

     All of these involve making educated guesses on the outcome of events beyond the PC's direct control. The description of gambling makes mention of organized (i.e. casino) gambling events, which implies civilization; the other two skills are specifically military, which again implies the presence of civilized, organized society (whether human or otherwise is left to the referee). Both  the casino and the war zone are environments where the PCs can make choices, use their skills, and pursue their goals.

      These military specialties, combined with the passing mention of Armored Fighting Vehicles in the equipment section, point towards the possibility of large-scale armed conflict. However, the absence of any other rules for conducting major conflicts seem to indicate that the actions of the PCs will be strategically significant. There is also a Leadership skill which allows the PCs to lead troops, but I have placed that with the Social skills.

      Large-scale conflict happens between states, whether on the same planet or on different planets. Here we see that there are organized political entities in the setting, and they may come into conflict with one another.

     When Book 4 Mercenary came along it expanded this idea of a military-themed adventure but still kept the scale small enough for the PCs to matter without having to be General of the Armies of the Confederation.

So, having mentioned weapons, next we'll talk about combat skills

Saturday, July 19, 2014

What do Skills tell us about Traveller's Setting?

What do Skills tell us about Traveller's Setting?  A post series.
The LBBs - Little Black Books
The original rulebooks, affectionately called The LBBs.

     Ken Hite, a game designer and writer, said in a panel discussion at CelestiCon 2011 that skills in an RPG are part of the setting. As such, they help to define the game world just as much as the back-story does. (The link there goes to an audio recording of that panel discussion, and is well worth listening to). So I have done an experiment, I've looked at just the skills presented in the oldest Traveller rulebook I have, to see what I could see. I will present my findings in this and a few subsequent posts.

      I'm not trying to be purist, as if we could or should strip Traveller of the 30 years of development and detail that has naturally grown out of and around it. I simply want to 'look back' and see what the ideas were at the beginning. Traveller was meant to do some things, but not everything. For example, there are no giant robots in the rules, so Japanese anime a la Robotech was not part of the original scope of the game.

      Classic Traveller was inspired by or based upon a number of science fiction works & series from the 50's and 60's – these provided the inspiration for the setting. However, In the original Little Black Books there was no setting at all. Not one planet was ready-made to serve as a setting for an adventure. The referee and players were supposed to supply that. You could tell from the title and subtitle that the game involved travel in space, but that's all.

      So, if I found myself in 1977 at my FLGS, buying this new game Traveller (now referred to as Classic Traveller or CT), with no personal history of reading science fiction, what assumptions could I make about what I was supposed to do with this game based on the skills offered?

      The skills list for Traveller is not extensive: there are 18 basic skills, 4 weapon skill categories, and 8 vehicle operation categories. The categories break down to a good number of specific weapons and vehicles.

      The basic skills were all the tings the designers decided characters needed formal training to be able to do. I've further sub-divided them into three categories: space, technical, and social.We'll look at Space today, and get to the others in later posts.

The Space skills are those which qualify a PC to serve a crew aboard a starship:

  • Piloting
  • Navigation
  • Engineering
  • Steward
  • Medic
  • Gunner (transferred from the Weapons group).

      The crew positions in the starship operations section each correlated directly to skills. While other crew positions could be inferred, only the skill matched positions were required for a ship to make it into space. Thus, a small band of PCs could operate a starship without the requirement of a big NPC crew.

      These skills clearly indicate that travel and encounters in space are going to be part of the game setting. Starships were meant to be more than a plot convenience to get characters from one planetary system to the next. Starships themselves were a destination and an adventure location! The presence of Gunnery skill indicates the possibility of the PCs encountering hostile forces in space. Places to go, and people who want to stop you from going there.

     The PC crew can decide where the ship goes, so the whole of space is opened to them, however large that area may be. Judging by the starship operation rules, solar systems may be very widely separated, and as such the setting can be quite large.

      Furthermore, through possession of these skills, PCs may operate starships independently. That is, they can be owners rather than just crew of the ship. This makes the PCs masters of their fates, more or less, able to pursue any goals that may be achieved by traveling in space. 

Up next, the Technical skills!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Chill - Amber Zone Reviews # 26

Amber Zone: Chill, by John M. Ford from JTAS #15

Check out the series introduction here.
Location: The planet Sainte Foy, a “rugged mining world” marked as an Amber Zone by the TAS. This represents the first Amber Zone adventure actually set on an Amber Zone world! The adventure references the Imperium but I can find no location for Sainte Foy.


Image source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tangra-Crest.jpg 

Patron: Initially the PCs are hired by a business agent who goes to lengths to conceal his (her?) identity. On Sainte Foy, the PCs report to the buyer, Count Ibraim Radge, a member of the Primacy, the local ruling elite.

Mission: The PCs are to act as tenders/minders for a cargo shipment of great importance intended for the capital city of Villefoix. They must accompany the shipment both through space and across the world's surface to its destination.

Complications: The secrecy surrounding the shipment will surely arouse suspicions among the PCs – giving the referee plenty of room to play with their suspicion (or paranoia). The cargo is large, bulky and has special handling requirements – it is heavy but fragile at the same time. The starport is a long way from the ultimate destination, requiring an overland trip by train. 

Sainte Foy is wet-concrete-bare-bench-cold. Hope the PCs packed their thermal gear! The trip, of course, will not be uneventful; there are those who wish to prevent the shipment from reaching its destination and don't mind using force to succeed. It seems this secret delivery is not so secret after all.

Payoff: The shipment is valued at 4 million credits, of which the PCs will (as a group) get 10%. Count Radge will offer additional reward for the overland trek.

Strong Points: This is a simple 'journey from A to B' scenario, that becomes a complicated survival scenario, nicely ramping up the drama. The PCs face big, big risks to win their big, big reward. The early stages of this adventures are dull, and can be summarized by the referee for players who want to get right to the action. This is not actually a mystery adventure, the PCs do not need to unravel all the 'whos' and 'whys' to survive and succeed; but the referee can play up the mystery aspect of the early stages, to keep the players interested and paying attention so they don't miss any significant cues.

Weak Points: I find it odd that the starport and the capital city of this export-based mining world are so far apart. Could it be that way just to necessitate an overland journey? The most noticeable weak point of this adventure is hard to explain without spoilers. In rough terms, it has to do with the motivation for the antagonist force that presents itself in the adventure. This group is opposed to a particular practice of the Primacy, which the adventure explains and makes a reasonable case for the Primacy acting as they do. By doing some math, I calculated that this behavior affects far less than one percent of the local populace in a meaningful way. So while it is dramatic on the surface, once you study it, the antagonist group is really fretting over trifles. This realization does not undermine the adventure, it just needs some more explanation.

What I'd change: I would develop the rationale & goals of the antagonist group further; the given explanation for their opposition would be a rhetorical cover for their real motivation, which is something more mundane and political that would not play well with the locals. There is a complication/plot thread mentioned in the epilogue that I would leave out of the adventure. If the PCs do well in this adventure, they will have gained some significant contacts with the Primacy, which I could use as lead-ins to further adventures. Also, the opponents they face in the adventure could return on a vendetta.

In My Traveller Universe: This adventure should be set on an Independent world, but one that is not too far from the galactic mainstream. I think the character of Sainte Foy matches Dorgenta (5 Worlds-America 0501) well enough – it's even an Amber Zone world.

Map: a portion of Sainte Foy, between Gateway Starport and Villefoix. 

 This map was created by me, using Hexographer (www.hexographer.com) It may be used or edited without restriction.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Hostile Takeover - Amber Zone Adventure Contest Entry #2

Amber Zone: A Hostile Takeover

This is my second entry in the Amber Zone adventure writing contest. The player's information is here, the rest of the adventure you can read at the Amber Zone

Player's Information:

The PC's are contacted by a business factor on Kubotoa (A-764854-D), looking for a small team to infiltrate a mansion. The Board of Directors of the Singletary Corporation, LLC, have a problem. The CEO of the corporation has been out of touch for weeks, and hasn't been seen in person in months. He was always reclusive, but this is the longest he's ever been gone. The corporation is facing a financial crisis occasioned by the CEO's absence & non-leadership. The Board has voted the CEO out, but the local law requires that he be present at the company offices to handle the transfer of power.

The CEO's last known whereabouts is his mansion at the edge of the city, which sits in a secured, walled compound. The PCs are hired to deliver the CEO to the company offices. They are authorized, as contract employees, to employ all necessary force to secure the CEO unharmed and bring him to the offices. The mansion is technically corporation property so they are not trespassing. The Board requests that the building itself be damaged as little as possible, but expect some damage as the CEO had installed numerous security measures without advising the Board; he was known to be very concerned about his personal security. Payment will be Cr 10,000 per man, plus any hospital expenses. Excessive damage to the mansion will be deducted from the pay. 

The illustration was taken from www.pixabay.com, a free image resource, and is in the public domain.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Traveller Motivational Posters!

A few "motivational" posters I found on the Web.

Exactly. It's out there, man. Go find it.

Yeah, but you knew the job was dangerous when you took it!

Because chargen should be lethal too.

Chargen is like skipping the 'origin story' and going straight to the good parts.

One more term & I get retirement pay!
One more term & I get retirement pay! And two more skills.

What are you waiting for?

They do NOT like meat-eaters. Like YOU.

And do not mess with the Imperial Marines.

Everything's better with rapid-pulse fusion guns.

Many of these are from the RPGnet wiki.

Drannixa Gambit - Amber Zone # 25

Amber Zone: Drannixa Gambit, by J. Andrew Keith from JTAS # 15

Check out the series introduction here.
Location: Azun (Solomani Rim 0809), in the Elskay & Drannixa arcologies

Patron: Arthur Wilcox, a politician of Elskay, and blackmail victim.

Mission: Wilcox wants the PCs to rescue his daughter, who was arrested under false pretenses by the government of Drannixa, another arcology. The Drannixans are using the trumped-up charges as leverage to force Wilcox to ruin a lucrative trade deal for his city, which Drannixa will then snap up at lesser cost.

Complications: The daughter is accused of participation in a conspiracy which attempted an act of terrorism. All the members are facing the death penalty. Because of the nature of the charges, simply removing the target from custody will not be enough; the PCs must also destroy all of the falsified computer records. She has been implanted with a tracer that will have to be removed. The computer records are restricted, and not easy to access. While the government figures are committing blackmail, they can hide/disguise it; the PCs are likely to commit several crimes which the government will prosecute if they get caught. Exposure of the blackmail may occur to the players, but it will be difficult and is outside the scope of the adventure. The target herself does not realize the severity of her situation, so she may not be completely cooperative with the rescue attempt.

Payoff: Cr 15,000 each, plus a High Passage off Azun. This seems low, given some of the price tags on previous Amber Zones, but that might be an indication that earlier adventures were overpaying.

Strong Points: This issue of JTAS has a feature article on Azun, which provides lots of detail and 'flavor' for the adveture. This is a classic rescue/extraction scenario, which will be familiar to all the players. While some specific skills are called for, it is not necessary for the PCs to have come from an espionage background. The mission will require a lot of planning and coordination by the PCs, and has plenty of opportunities for the referee to insert extra difficulties. These will allow for fast-thinking improvisation, which is always exciting. The drama level should be pretty high. 

Weak Points: Even with the main articles' details, there's not a lot that's very 'sci-fi' about this adventure. It all takes place indoors, which can become very generic without regular reminders of the peculiar nature of the arcology. This is a pretty mild criticism, and I'll even turn it around by saying that the 'generic' nature of the setting makes it easy to transport the adventure to another location.

What I'd change: I would make some of the evidence physical (say, hard-copy video recordings) rather than digital so that it can get lost/re-taken if the operation has gone too smoothly. I would introduce a specific NPC police character that will be a foil to the PC's plans. The officer will be an honest cop, who believes the evidence is genuine, and is loyal to the city. He is a former adventurer, so he thinks like the PCs, and can counter their moves. The PCs may try to convince him of the blackmail plot; what will happen if they succeed? If they get away with it, he may reappear after they leave Azun, pursuing them with a warrant for their arrest.

In My Traveller Universe: As I said, this adventure could effectively happen anywhere with better than 20th century tech level, so I will place it in the Corellian League, on Nouveau Avignon (Dormarc-Ostrander 0107)

Maps: The Drannixa arcology is several kilometers high, with hundreds of 'floors' so mapping it would be difficult. Referees should only design maps of detention areas, computer data centers and other relevant parts of the arcology. 

  A graphic showing the scale of an arcology vs. a modern skyscraper.