Tuesday, November 25, 2014

When you don't want lethal force - stunning weapons

There are lots of reasons to not kill NPCs in Traveller, chief among them PC's or player's convictions on the issue of deadly force. So there should be some options available. However, non-lethal weapons are a tricky proposition – how does one inflict enough force to disable a target without doing too much and killing the target instead?
The Classic Traveller Adventure Divine Intervention (Double Adventure # 6) calls for non-lethal force serving the purpose of the mission, and so the patron introduces the stun carbine, utilizing some kind of high-frequency or high intensity sound waves. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Top Ten and Bottom Ten Amber Zones

A very familiar Amber Zone World
     I'm almost done reviewing all of the Amber Zones from the original JTAS issues #1-24, but I decided to take a look back and summarize what I've gone through already. Some were good and some were bad, and that's all just my opinion. Please argue with me in the comments if you disagree. 

 The Best of the Bunch

# 1 Aces & Eights A mystery, a murder, a fortune, and a chance to be Big Damn Heroes, this adventure has it all.
# 2 Thoughtwaves - In my review I described Thoughtwaves as one of the best AZ's written. I put it at #2 because of the two, I would rather play A's & 8's. Other than that, these would tie for first.
# 3 Coup d'Etat Another one that just sounds like such fun to play. Hey, you get to rescue a princess, how cool is that?
#4 Dagger at Efate You're aboard an out-of-control starship on a collision course with a planet. What else could go wrong?
#5 Homesteader's Stand Defeat the baddies, save the town, get the girl. Wait, is this a Western in space?  Awesome!
#6 Loggerheads The setup for this one is straightforward - stop the runaway Plot Device. But what if the Plot Device is more than you've been told? 
#7 The Werewolf Disease A manhunt on an island. Did we mention he's paranoid, super-strong and armed?  Oh, could you bring him back alive, please?
#8 Tarkine Down, Thunder on Zyra, Soft Bunk, Ticket to Swords - These are all Mercenary or Striker scenarios which could be expanded into longer campaigns.
#9 Pride of the Lion The Most Dangerous Game, with Aslan as the targets. They may not actually want your help.
#10 Chill The Weak Point I mentioned in my review is what puts this to the bottom. A transportation scenario in sub-zero weather and an enemy more dangerous than the weather.

The Bottom Ten

From least worst (10) to worst worst (1).

#10 Chariots of Fire This is the 'least worst'. I would put it on the other list, but its central premise is committing a crime, and I have stated repeatedly that I don't like crime scenarios.
#9 Lockbox - I panned this one in my review, but I'd like to hear why BeRKA liked it so much.
#8 Small Cargoes - Either a smuggling job, or a non-exciting adventure in acquiring permission to import goods to a restricted system.
#7 Geria Transfer - Over scripted and linear, but has some interesting bits to it.
#6 Last Flight of the Themis - A crash investigation where the PCs have nothing invested in the answers but a paycheck.
#5 Foodrunner - There's just nothing heroic about fighting off a horde of hungry peasants who just want some food.
#4 Planetoid P-4638 - An industrial espionage job that could fail utterly before it even begins.
#3 Rescue on Ruie - You want us to break a rich-kid admitted criminal out of a max-security brig because his rich dad wants us to? Uh, no thanks.
#2 Rule of Man Commemorative - As written the least exciting of all the Amber Zones.You will almost certainly not even notice the bigger plot going on around you. Yawn.

And the worst Amber Zone of them All is:

#1 Scam You commit one crime, for which you get paid by information which, if you commit another crime, might just maybe net you some dough, while getting a lot of Imperial attention, and the guy who set you up has legged it with the real payoff. NO! THANK! YOU!

For comparison, here are BeRKA's Top Ten from The Amber Zone. We agree about many but not all of them.

  1. Aces & Eights, by John M. Ford from JTAS #14
  2. Roadshow, by John M. Ford from JTAS #23 I haven't reviewed this yet.
  3. Foxhound, by J.D. Webster from JTAS #14
  4. Chariots of Fire, by Anders Blixt from JTAS #18
  5. Thoughtwaves, by John Ford from JTAS #13
  6. Small Package, by J. Andrew Keith from JTAS #19
  7. Royal Hunt, by J. Andrew Keith from JTAS #12
  8. Lockbox, by J. Andrew Keith from JTAS #13
  9. Embassy in Arms, by John Marshal from JTAS #24 Or this one.
  10. Homesteaders’ Stand, by William H. Keith, Jr from JTAS #21 

Image from Map 1100 by Tom Bont, from his program Astrogator.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Clement Sector - New Frontier of Exploration and Adventure

Product Review - Clement Sector by John Watts,  published by Gypsy Knight Games

Image borrowed from www.freelancetraveller.com. Image property of Gypsy Knight Games.
 I won my copy of Clement Sector in the Amber Zone adventure writing contest, so I came at it from what I hope is a neutral perspective. My review will take the same general shape as my Amber Zone Review series; that is I'll describe what it offers, what I think was really good about it and what was not so good, and how I would change things to make Clement Sector my own.

Quick Look at what you get:
    140 pages, with scattered illustrations. The first part of the book is the subsector maps and descriptions. From there you get Characters, Starships, Equipment, Travel, Governments, Corporations, Organizations, and Religions.

    The Clement Sector book is written to work with the Mongoose Traveller rules, but is described in a general enough way that whichever version of Traveller you play, you can use Clement Sector. The artwork is very good, and nicely divides the chapters, rather than breaking up the text.

History of the Sector:
    This book postulates an original future, where mankind reaches out to the stars by the 22nd century, first by Jump-1 drives, here called Zinn drives after its inventor, then by means of a wormhole (The Conduit) which permitted transit to the far side of the Milky Way galaxy. Colonization of solar systems on the far side of the Conduit began, and continued until the early 24th century when the Conduit disappeared, trapping all of the colonists on the far side, with no way to return to near-Earth space.

Subsector Breakdown:
    There is only one multi-planet polity in the Clement Sector, the Hub Federation. All other worlds in the sector are independent. The subsector maps are in the normal CT style, and each subsector gets a planet list and a few short notes about inhabited worlds. The bulk of Clement Sector is not inhabited, leaving plenty of room for travel and exploration.

Some notes on some of the chapters:

Characters: Character creation for the Clement Sector follows the standard Traveller rules, except that SOC has been changed to represent wealth & influence, since there are no interstellar entities with aristocratic hierarchies. Skill levels are capped at 4 (perhaps this is a MgT rule) and the skills limit of INT+EDU is specified.  Two career tracks are detailed: the Hub Federation Navy and the Cascadia Colonization Authority.

Technology: The most important technology to note is the Zimm drive, which is capable of a maximum of Jump-2. This fact more than any other shapes the colonization of Clement Sector. Tech levels on inhabited planets is very uniform, mostly TL-A and B with exactly two planets at TL-C. This makes sense as the planets have all been colonized within a narrow period of time, but it limits the variety found in a typical Traveller subsector.  The specifics of the Zimm drive require that ship size in Clement Sector be limited to 5000 tons.

Starships: The book includes five starships, complete with deckplans and MgT style ship stats, which again are easy to convert to other editions of Traveller. The deck plans and artwork again are very good.

Corporations/Organizations: A goodly selection of business and civil groups, described in about a half a page. The Stellar Purity group sounds likely as a recurring villain group with their nutty philosophy.

Politics: A brief overview of the state of relations between planets. You would not think that there would be much political action with each planet being a separate government, it should be very hard to prosecute a war on that scale.

Religion: This section acknowledges the continued existence of Earth's dominant religions, then invents two more. One is a vague Force-like religion with an ill-defined evil entity, and the other is Mormonism in a funny hat.

Aliens: Clement Sector has no aliens – but it looks like they used to. Several sites are described where objects of clearly not-human manufacture have been discovered. What does this mean for the Sector?  Only the referee can say.

Wrap-up: This book has what any Traveller resource should have – a framework which the referee can build upon to create unique and original adventures. Lots of material to work with here! The index at the rear of the book is a welcome tool, not all rpg books, by any means, are indexed.

The Best part is:The Clement sector is wide open, and still has lots of actual frontier. The higher tech levels are still to be developed, and there is no Imperium enforcing stability. Ambitious PCs can really shape the course of the Sector, if they're lucky.

This could have been better: I would have liked more variety with the Tech Levels. I respect the decision to cap everything at TL-B/C, but there should be some more planets further down the chart at 5, 6 or 7.

Putting my own spin on it: I would have pre-set a few more multi-planet states, spaced far enough apart to have spheres of influence that sometimes overlap. I also would have focused more on the place of the Church in Clement sector, and left out the faux-Mormons.

I am stealing this idea: There are five starship types described, with stats and deckplans. They will be making an appearance in my TU, especially the Atlas-class freighter. Also, the format for describing the Corporations and Organizations  - one page, logo at the top and 400-500 words to give just enough structure that the referee can take it and run. I plan to create and share a few more corporations in my TU, using this format.

Friday, November 14, 2014

It's All About Atmosphere

Unlike the two most popular sci-fi visual media franchises (Star Trek & Star Wars) Traveller is not afraid of planets that are inhospitable through having too much or not enough atmosphere. Of the dozen or so atmosphere types in the CT world generation system, exactly 3 can be breathed without assistance. It is far more common in Traveller for a world to face some kind of environmental factor that makes it hard for humans to live there. Place shapes culture, and Atmosphere is a big part of your Place. So then, in no order, here are a few thoughts on how a planet's atmosphere will affect adventurers who visit there, and how that planet's culture can be influenced.

The most important way that atmosphere comes into an adventure is reminding the players that they are not on Earth, they're on an alien world. Differences in temperature, sky color, mist or smoke or clouds of gasses, odd smells, all color and define the place they're in. Traveller provides a very wide palette of worlds, don't let every place seem like your home town.

   Vacuum, Trace and Very Thin atmospheres have sharply defined shadows, as there is no atmospheric diffusion of light. Also, there will be bright star and moon light at night - no diffusion and there will rarely be any clouds. Denser atmospheres will harder to see through due to the abundance of molecules of translucent gases and vapors. Imagine a whole world shrouded in London's pea-soup fog.

Tainted atmospheres can have anything in them that makes breathing complicated, even too much oxygen. Our air is about 21% oxygen. Breathing excessive levels of oxygen (hyperoxia) can cause seizures and breathing difficulties. If the atmosphere code says tainted, then the PCs can't breath it without assistance. Decide on an effect, and enforce it.

The CT rules give no guidance for how dense a Dense atmosphere can be - Venus' atmosphere is 92 times as dense as ours. Even if the temperature and atmospheric composition on Venus were Earth-like, we still couldn't breathe there, we'd be crushed by the enormous pressure. So here we have a world where the Vacc suit is worn to keep the pressure out, not in! In Dense atmospheres, gas and smoke rounds from grenades or artillery shells will have their area coverage halved - the gaseous compounds will not disperse well. Dense atmospheres will hold smells really well. Dense atmospheres will cut weapon range, increasing the negative DM's at Long and Very Long range.

    On the other hand, in Vacuum, Trace and Very Thin atmospheres, gas and smoke rounds will disperse almost instantly, their effective duration cut to 10% of normal. Weapon ranges will be extended owing to the reduction of wind resistance. It will also be harder to hear, as there is less matter (air) through which sound can propagate. The referee can emphasize the lack of sound - on Earth we're used to background noise, often of traffic; but on an airless world there would be silence. Silence can be unnerving for some people; and while there's no rules for the effects of silence, it is worth reminding the players of that fact.

    In standard atmospheres, there can be harmless compounds in the air that affect the color of the sky, making for even multi-colored skies. There may be natural irritants, which don't qualify for the Tainted rating, but that may affect respiration. If your END is say, 11+, you're immune. Otherwise, have each PC roll 10+ to be immune, or the PC is forced to wear a filter mask to avoid coughing or sneezing fits. 

    Any atmosphere can be combined with very cold temperatures; if the hydrographic code is 4 or less, then the atmosphere is cold and dry, there will be very little snow or ice. Just cold. 

    Any atmosphere can be combined with high temperatures, which causes difficulty whether it is moist or dry. On such a planet, perhaps all the population lives near the poles where it's cooler. 

    On planets with thin atmospheres, there may be no trees, just shrubs and bushes.

   Populations under pop code 5 are more likely to be collective in orientation, especially if they are on planets with difficult atmospheres. Cultures that live in sealed environs because of atmospheric difficulties will invariably produce communal behavior as a byproduct of living in close quarters - they want stability and order, and communal orientation will do that. Also there will be cooperative over competitive attitude, as well as a doing orientation. Everyone has to pitch in to ensure survival for all. 

    Cultures on worlds with Very Thin and or Tainted atmospheres that are collective-oriented will insist on everyone carrying spare filters and emergency masks. It will be expected that they will give aid (spares) to anyone in need, friend or stranger. Also, a there can be a cultural fear of being without one,  which could be used against an NPC. Refusing to share mask or filter would be a serious breach of hospitality. 

    The same culture may adopt a habit of covering the face while indoors or in 'clean' air. Half of whole face masks, loose or rigid, can be decorated and have styles. They might indicate something about the status of the person wearing it. Only very close associates will allow one another to see their uncovered faces. Makeup and such will not be the norm, as it may affect mask seals. Eye contact would be of supreme importance in this culture, as the eyes would be the only visible part of the face. 

In summary, there are many ways to emphasize how a planet is not like Earth; from sights, to sounds to smells to the ways humans interact with the environment. This is a science fiction game of travel and exploration, simple observations like the ones above can greatly help the players visualize the setting as an alien world.

Friday, November 7, 2014

What does Game Balance look like in Traveller?

As I understand it, in many current RPGs, of various genres, there is a concept called game balance, by which the Referee/GM scales the size and capability of monsters or NPC groups to the capabilities of the PC group, so that the PCs have an even chance of being victorious in the encounter.

Classic Traveller . . . has none of that. That concept is nowhere to be found. I have reviewed 35 Amber Zone adventures on this site, and I own all of the GDW Adventures and Short Adventures. None of them have any discussion in the preparation section for how many PCs should be part of the crew, or what skills or weapons the PC group should have. There's usually a pre-generated list of eight characters in the standard Traveller short form, but no indication that all of them need to be included.You've just got to be prepared for anything.

Over on the Facebook Traveller-RPG page, there was a discussion last month about this matter. A new member asked the group if there was in Traveller an analogue to D&D's challenge rating. Several posters replied that Traveller just don't work that way. I won't quote, since I don't want to take the time to ask permission, but several responders gave advice like this:

  • Running away may sometimes be the PC's best option. You can and will be outnumbered or outgunned.
  • In-game aspects like Tech Level and Law Level will influence how hostile NPCs are equipped, but that's an aspect of the game world, not game mechanics.
  • Avoid encounters with NPCs that have fusion guns and Battle Dress.
  • Learn to negotiate. Use the Reaction Table!
  • Traveller PCs are not meant to be super heroes or demi-gods. They're talented and adventurous, but normal people. More Dominc Flandry and Slippery Jim DeGriz than Conan the Barbarian or Gandalf. 
  • Remember that NPCs should also have motivations beyond being an obstacle for the PCs. 
 For all of the assertions that Traveller combat is deadly, I have to note that a while back on the Citizens of the Imperium board I asked how often did players have PCs get killed in a game, and most of the answers were "not that often". Perhaps they just heeded the advice to Run Away, or depended more on sneaking about than fighting. 

However, the following weapons, if encountered, should be avoided:

The PGMP/FGMP series of 'high energy' weapons.  The least bad of this lot will dish out 12d damage, enough to kill an average PC twice (average 42 dmg vs stats 777[21]). 

The VRF Gauss gun. This is a fully automatic hopper-fed rail gun spraying 10 round bursts. Whole squads can get mowed down in one round by this one. Duck and cover!

The Gauss rifle. One of the most popular weapons in the game. Semi or full auto, integrated electronic sights, 4D damage with autofire bonuses and an Armor DM profile to make the lowly shotgun jealous. 

The LAG (light assault gun). A modern rifle in old flintlock calibers (.60+). Multiple ammo types and good range. 

Laser Rifles. They've got good armor DMs, except against Reflec, and great range, and are available by TL 9. 5D damage has almost a 1 in 4 chance to kill an average PC in one shot.

The lowly shotgun. Nothing says Traveller like Shotguns in Space. Range isn't great, Armor DM's aren't great, but against weak armor a 4D blast will put you on the mat in a hurry. And they're legal just about everywhere, and so low-tech that you can find them anywhere.

Please note that with even the basic, simplified CT rules on wounding and recovery, if two stats are reduced to zero [777>bang> 070], the PC is unconscious and without Medical-3 care recovery is not possible. Auto pistols are capable of inflicting this level of damage, so treat the big guns with respect.  With the advanced medical rules detailed in JTAS 11, we get the deterioration rule which ticks off additional wound points if aid is not rendered pronto. So the advice to sneak and run is well worth heeding.