Tuesday, December 30, 2014

But I Don't Like That Rule!

What to do when we encounter a rule that does not 'work' for us?

Recently my older son was rolling up some Traveller characters using the MegaTraveller enhanced generation rules. I remembered that characters in the year-by-year process end up with a lot of skills. As I looked over the results, I mentioned to him that this one character violated the rule that limits total skill levels to the sum of INT & EDU. Needless to say, he was unhappy about this, as it required his character to shed seven skill levels.
Under basic CT character generation, this is rarely a problem. After term 1 the average PC gains 2 skill levels per term, and the skill limit for average characters is 14. Unless the player goes for 6-8 terms they will not run up against this limit. PCs with above average mental stats have a higher limit, and three services have mental stat improvements in the Personal Development table. All the services have INT and EDU bonuses on the Mustering Out tables.

After a PC musters out of service, the Experience rules for CT make it a simple and speedy matter to improve EDU. Any player can take a year and pump up EDU before pursuing skill increases by using the experience rules.

The question my son asked is: why have this rule? It is not often enforced because it often does not need enforcement. The Experience rules both support it and provide a way around it. I answered him that the rule exists for play balance. That's what I really want to talk about here.

To build my case, allow me to use an illustration. Dr. Peter Kreeft is a philosophy professor at Boston College, and a noted Catholic thinker. He gave a lecture some years ago defending the Church of Rome's insistence on an exclusively male priesthood. It is a good well reasoned lecture, and I mention it because part of his defense of the priesthood makes a good point that can apply to gaming as well.

Kreeft's point was this: If you are walking through a field and you come upon a fence; and you don't know who put the fence there or why, the really stupid thing to do is to tear the fence down. The sensible thing to do is leave the fence in place, then go and find out why it's there. The only people, he said, who have the right to tear down the fence are the ones who understand why it is there. This is usually the people who put it there.

Rules in RPGs are fences- they restrict, limit and shape the game. Many gamers use 'house rules' to eliminate or modify a rule that they don't like or find gets in the way, like the skill limit rule I mentioned to my son. The board game Monopoly is almost as famous for its many house rules as it is for its game play and long history. 

Any serious player of Monopoly will tell you that most house rules, especially the 'free money on Free Parking' rule unbalances the game and make it take longer to finish. You can win by-the-book Monopoly in two hours. Cash injections make it more difficult to force opponents into bankruptcy, which is how you win. Once I learned this, I refused to play the game with house rules.

On blogs & forums I have read experienced players criticize new players (newbies) for complaining about rules that they do not like and wanting to change the rules. The criticism of this attitude centers on the fact that the newbies don't understand why the rule is the way it is. They also don't see the long-term effects of changing the rule. In the real world, this is known as the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Another rule from CT which exists to maintain play balance is the survival rule in character generation. Every gamer knows, if they know nothing else about Classic Traveller, that it is the game where your character can die before the game begins. And jokes abound about this. Well yeah, it is true (see Omer Joel's defense of Dying in Character Generation) but the jokers often fail to grasp or even ask why the rule is there.
How does the skill limit rule keep Traveller balanced?

When I say balanced, I mean balancing competence and risk. Traveller's core dice mechanic is 'roll 2D6, add modifiers and beat a target number'. It is simple and it works, but the spread of result numbers on 2D6 is not very wide, so too many modifiers can mean PCs are always successful. Automatic success means no (or less) fun. There's no excitement as the dice rolling becomes pro forma confirmation of an already known outcome. At the other end of this problem, to compensate for high DMs, the referee may set target numbers very high (11+, 13+, 15+) which make them impossible for 'average' skilled characters. Automatic failure means no (or less) fun.

The survival rule keeps skill levels at that 'challenging but not impossible' range by discouraging players from going for 8-10 terms to get super high skill levels. If a player chooses to do this, they accept the risk of losing the character; or having a very physically limited character courtesy of another balancing rule, the aging rule. The skill maximum rules serves this balance as well. It reflects a bit of reality, that one must be of superior intelligence and education to have professional levels of skill in multiple areas. A PC may have a skill-5 on his resume, but it is probably at the cost of not having a wide pool of skill-1s.

As I explained while discussing Mr.Tukachevski, skill level one indicates employable competence in an area, the equivalent of a trade school or military service school. It is skill-0 that is the result of the weekend seminar or self-directed reading course. Depending on the skill description, even one level of skill can give a healthy bonus towards task success.

Classic Traveller is modeled on a body of science fiction literature. This has been discussed in enough places that I do not need to elaborate here. One of the things that characterizes most of that literature is its very human scale. The heroes and protagonists are intelligent, brave, talented and resourceful, but they are still human. Three of these traits are in the realms of the players, where they should be. They are not superheroes or demi-gods. For the one, play any of the games based on DC or Marvel comics, and for the other, play Dungeons & Dragons. I'm not cracking on either of those genres, I have played both and enjoyed them. I am saying that it is a part of the game's setting for the PCs to be normal people. So Traveller PCs are human as well, even when playing aliens. There is plenty of high technology that can give PCs power, but that is balanced by the fact that opponent NPC have the same access to technology. The way to deal with TL-15 Marines wearing Battle Dress with Grav belts and Fusion guns is to outwit or outmaneuver them, and that is also in the realm of the players, where it should be.
Run. Just Run.
Coming back around to rules we do not like; if there is a rule in the books that is keeping you from doing something you think would be cool, talk with the referee. Ask on a forum or a blog why the rule is there, and what effects changing the rule will have. Maybe you'll learn to accept the rule as it is, or the consequences of changing it will be too much. If you still want to change, and the referee is willing, work out a trade-off. Get around the restrictive rule, but accept a penalty/restriction/loss somewhere else. Also keep in mind that when you create a house rule, you limit your ability to interact with players of that game in other game groups or at conventions. For every rule break you want for your PC, the referee can feel free to break that rule for NPCs – all of them. You want your PC with average INT & EDU to have multiple Skill-5s? Your opponents will probably become much more skilled in response. Because a fun game is one where the players have to take chances, use their wits and where the PCs have a chance of failure. The potential for failure creates tension, and tension is dramatic. It is what makes the achievement of a goal uncertain, and make the goal's attainment so satisfying.

Happy gaming!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

And the Winner is . . . Me!

 The 76 Patrons Adventure Writing contest for 2014 is over, and the winning entry has been announced. It's my entry The Oncoming Storm! To say the least, I'm thrilled!  It has been great fun writing and reading entries in this contest.

Read BeRKA's announcement here.

Congratulations also go to:
Mark McCabe for The Bank Job (Second Place)
Sifu Blackirish for Game Time (Third Place)

Head over to the Zhodani base and read all the 76 Patrons contest entries. Adventures galore await you!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas from AF3!

Christ is born! Glorify Him!

BEHOLD a new and wondrous mystery. My ears resound to the Shepherd’s song, piping no soft melody, but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn. The Angels sing. The Archangels blend their voice in harmony. The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise. The Seraphim exalt His glory. All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He Who is above, now for our redemption dwells here below; and he that was lowly is by divine mercy raised.
Bethlehem this day resembles heaven; hearing from the stars the singing of angelic voices; and in place of the sun, enfolds within itself on every side, the Sun of justice. And ask not how: for where God wills, the order of nature yields. For He willed; He had the power; He descended; He redeemed; all things yielded in obedience to God. This day He Who is, is Born; and He Who is, becomes what He was not. For when He was God, He became man; yet not departing from the Godhead that is His. Nor yet by any loss of divinity became He man, nor through increase became He God from man; but being the Word He became flesh, His nature, because of impassability, remaining unchanged.
And so the kings have come, and they have seen the heavenly King that has come upon the earth, not bringing with Him Angels, nor Archangels, nor Thrones, nor Dominations, nor Powers, nor Principalities, but, treading a new and solitary path, He has come forth from a spotless womb.
Since this heavenly birth cannot be described, neither does His coming amongst us in these days permit of too curious scrutiny. Though I know that a Virgin this day gave birth, and I believe that God was begotten before all time, yet the manner of this generation I have learned to venerate in silence and I accept that this is not to be probed too curiously with wordy speech.  

For with God we look not for the order of nature, but rest our faith in the power of Him who works. 
What shall I say to you; what shall I tell you? I behold a Mother who has brought forth; I see a Child come to this light by birth. The manner of His conception I cannot comprehend. 

Nature here rested, while the Will of God labored. O ineffable grace! The Only Begotten, Who is before all ages, Who cannot be touched or be perceived, Who is simple, without body, has now put on my body, that is visible and liable to corruption. For what reason? That coming amongst us he may teach us, and teaching, lead us by the hand to the things that men cannot see. For since men believe that the eyes are more trustworthy than the ears, they doubt of that which they do not see, and so He has deigned to show Himself in bodily presence, that He may remove all doubt.
Christ, finding the holy body and soul of the Virgin, builds for Himself a living temple, and as He had willed, formed there a man from the Virgin; and, putting Him on, this day came forth; unashamed of the lowliness of our nature. 

For it was to Him no lowering to put on what He Himself had made. Let that handiwork be forever glorified, which became the cloak of its own Creator. For as in the first creation of flesh, man could not be made before the clay had come into His hand, so neither could this corruptible body be glorified, until it had first become the garment of its Maker. 

What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of days has become an infant. He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He Who cannot be touched, Who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men. He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infants bands. But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation the measure of His Goodness. 

For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit, that He may save me. 

Come, then, let us observe the Feast. Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been ¡in planted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels. 

Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He became Flesh. He did not become God. He was God. Wherefore He became flesh, so that He Whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive. He was placed in a manger, so that He, by whom all things arc nourished, may receive an infant¢s food from His Virgin Mother. So, the Father of all ages, as an infant at the breast, nestles in the virginal arms, that the Magi may more easily see Him. Since this day the Magi too have come, and made a beginning of withstanding tyranny; and the heavens give glory, as the Lord is revealed by a star.

To Him, then, Who out of confusion has wrought a clear path, to Christ, to the Father, and to the Holy Ghost, we offer all praise, now and for ever. Amen.

St. John Chrysostom, “Homily on Christmas Morning”

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Naming Astronomical Objects

IAU artist rendering of an exoplanet, seen from its moon.
The International Astronomical Union is, for this planet anyway, the official body that determines what objects in our solar system are called. They are the ones who revoked Pluto's status as a planet in 2006, to the consternation of school children everywhere. Here you can find the IAU's official explanation of why Pluto got reclassified, and what category it currently fits in. Here is the overview of Astronomical naming conventions, plus the rules for naming exoplanets, which can be helpful to Traveller referees who need a quick name for some remote and uninhabited rock where the PCs are meeting some shady contact. 

Remember that regardless of what world generation system you are using, any solar system can have satellites and minor planets in addition to the main world, and any of them can be adventure locations. Get your PCs out there and start exploring.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Battle Report - GDW's Striker

Commando raid on Divisional Headquarters

A buddy and I have begun a new Striker battle. The scenario is a commando raid. Side A's division HQ was supposed to be safe, far back from the front lines, but Side B's forces found it and have sent in a platoon-sized unit to knock it out and eliminate the General. Side A is of course trying to prevent this.

The HQ is the cluster of black rectangles on the left, with a trail around it and a road leading away over the stream. They have a cliff to the north and a river to the west (off the bottom of the picture), and a stream to the south, so it is reasonably well situated. Side B's force is currently sheltering in the grove of trees in the upper right, but several of side A's units can see them.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Oncoming Storm - a 76 Patrons Adventure

The Oncoming Storm

An adventure for Traveller


Location: Highbury (Foreven/Titan 0106) 0926 B566879-9  Ri  (PBG)203
Patron: Colonel Sandovar Fasola, military intelligence officer of Caxburgh, one of the major states of Highbury
Required skills and equipment: none

Players Information:
Highbury's two main land masses are separated by fairly wide oceans, except at one point, known as the Channel. In this narrow passage (32 km at nearest point) is found the chain of islands that make up the country of Glostonburgh, home to 2400 souls. Glostonburgh’s economy is based on fishing, and they export fish and aquaculture goods to nations on both continents. 

Caxburgh (103 million) on one continent and Breedony (86 million) on the other are gearing up towards a war. Glostonburgh is officially neutral but both sides have a reason to desire control the islands; the largest island has an excellent harbor, and the islands can serve as staging grounds for invading the other country. 

Colonel Fasola wants the PCs to investigate the island, looking for military activity by the other side, to use as a pretext and justification for their own occupation. He’s using off-worlders to minimize risk of being recognized as spies. They are given a special military comm channel which can be utilized by their own comms, and two weeks in which to discover any military ships, planes or vehicles, any uniformed soldiers, or other evidence that Breedony has already violated the neutrality. They will have to provide tangible evidence for the Colonel to take to the high command, preferably visual recordings. 

The PCs will be given a cover identity as off-world journalists there to investigate the local aquaculture. They can use this guise or create one of their own. They can use their own contra-grav craft if they have one, or Fasola will arrange for one to be available. At the end of two weeks, the PCs should return, with whatever intelligence they’ve been able to gather. Pay can be negotiated based upon PC’s military background and social skills.

You can read the rest of the adventure, and leave a comment at the Zhodani Base

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Thing in the Telescope - a 76 Patrons adventure

The Thing in the Telescope

an adventure for Traveller

and contest entry in the Zhodani Base 76 Patrons adventure writing contest.

Chang-Xi's best resolution image of the Thing.

Patron: Jedric Chang-Xi
Location: Apinanto (Foreven/Fessor 0604)
Required: starship skills, Vacc Suit skill

Player's Information:

Chang-Xi contacts the PC group, offering to hire them as ship crew for an in-system exploration mission. If the PCs have a ship, they can use it, but if not then Chang-Xi has chartered a Slow Pinnace. He is an amateur astonomer, and recently he detected something in the L4 cluster of the second planet in the Apinanto system. The cluster is a mass of small asteroid bodies and ice clouds, which are in motion, making identification of the Thing difficult. Apinanto Prime is the fourth planet, a low population poor world that gets little interstellar traffic. If the object is a ship, Chang-Xi can sell it to the government which would pay handsomely for it. He offers the PCs either one month standard salary by position, or a total of 15% of the salvage price of whatever he finds.

Travel to the L4 cluster will take several hours to around a day, the inner planet orbits the sun much faster than Apinanto.

You can read the rest of the adventure, and leave a comment at the Zhodani Base

Image credit: NASA photo archive http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap951010.html

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Path of the Lioness - Campaign Journal #1

Captain's Log Federation Science Ship Lioness
Captain Josiah Greene reporting

Ferret Hunt

     We left Zephlenn, and returned to Mavellar to complete our contract with the pharmaceutical firm. After delivering the plant samples we were able to turn our attention more fully to figuring out what we had found in the cave on Zephlenn. The triangular metal plate which we had until the mysterious team of soldiers took it from us seems likely to be part of a set, which make up the pentagon design on the wall of the cave. 
The star field projector was easier to understand; but it took our ship's computer nearly the whole jump to correlate the image with a location in space. It looks like our next destination is the planet Klah, two parsecs from Mavellar. 

     Some local scholars were able to give us a lead on the inscriptions on the cave entrance and walls, we now know at least that the writing is Haephestian. Everybody knows of the Haephestians, that they're xenophobic humanoid aliens who possess incredibly advanced technology but don't share any with the Federation. What we don't know is anything certain about them, not even their language. The sages were only able to translate a few words from the inscriptions we showed them:
  • Power 
  • Space
  • Guard
  • Great

We have no idea what any of that could mean. The star map points us towards Klah. Once we get there we will try to find out where the star map image was taken. 

For the transit to Klah from Mavellar, we have taken on some routine cargo to offset costs, and one charter job. We are transferring a family of twelve Horton's quasi-ferrets, commonly called Q-ferrets and a White Speckled Tree Rat to the national Zoo on Klah. During the trip, the q-ferrets managed to escape their containment unit, and the entire crew had to get involved in rounding them up. They're cute little creatures, but they move fast and were hard to catch. The tree rat broke out of its cage - no one told us that tree rats like the taste of q-ferret. Fortunately we captured it before it could get its teeth into one. General Mason and I agreed it would be best not to mention to the Zoo that their one exhibit almost ate the other. 
End of entry.

Horten's quasi-ferret
Omnivore Gatherer    6 kg    6/12     Teeth-2D    no armor    A9  F3  S3
Hoten's quasi-ferrets, also 'horties' and q-ferrets, are a playful but undomesticated woodland creature from the planet Zed. Black to gray to off-white in color, six-limbed and very lithe, they get into small spaces easily.

White speckled tree rats
Carnivore chaser    25 kg    15/9    claws & teeth    Jack armor    A if more  F6  S3
Tree rats are short, with sleek silky brown fur speckled with large white spots. The tree rat is a rare prize specimen found only in a few zoos. Their temperment is agressive, territorial; they attack with fury when provoked.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Downward - a 76 Patrons Adventure

An adventure for Traveller.

The Zhodani Base is hosting the 76 Patrons adventure writing contest again. This is one of my entries.
Location: Gotylu (Foreven/Urnian 3035) E-688699-2 Ag Ni Ri

Gotylu is a farming world of barely 2 million people. The world is classified as an Amber Zone because of the extremely xenophobic natives. While they are very low-tech, there's a lot of them compared to the small human trade outposts. Because of this fact Gotylu has not been explored very much, with one exception.

Gotylu has one very interesting feature: the Gotylu Chasm, a kilometers-deep naturally occurring hole in the ground. The Chasm is not a canyon; it is a basically vertical shaft of uncertain depth, with nearly a quarter-kilometer diameter on the surface. Its volume and shape are less certain below the surface. Geologists have attempted to study this bizarre phenomenon but often run afoul of the locals and have to make a hasty departure. This has led to the site, while it remains an area of much interest, to be referred to simply as the Hole.
One recent geological team which rapidly evacuated informed Dr. Karl Barrow, the department head for Geography and Exo-geography at Ovdyo State University that in the process of their departure, the central data core that was correlating all of their measurements and sensor data fell into the hole. Dr. Barrow is offering, with the University's approval, transport to and from Gotylu and Cr 50,000 finder's fee for the team that can descend into the Chasm and retrieve the data core. As there will not be a geological survey site on the surface, the hope is that the locals will not notice a small team arriving and infiltrating the Chasm. The Geology department will provide the team with a reliable but used air/raft if the team does not have one of their own. The air/raft is to be returned, it is not part of the payment. Dr. Barrow's department provides maps of Gotylu, and aerial imagery of the Chasm site. A junior geologist can accompany the PCs if they want his expertise.

You can read the rest of the adventure, and leave a comment, at The Zhodani Base. 

A dozen unusual psionic talents for Traveller

Psionics! They're a curious corner of the CT rules, seemingly out of place among mundane things like equipment lists and unrefined fuel and Admin skill. Most of the Psi talents were pretty low-power; CT was not trying to replicate your favorite super-hero comics. But there is that small section, a paragraph really, discussing Special powers. The rarest of the rare. The description paragraph leaves it totally in the hands of the referee as to what those talents might be, offering only the counsel that Special powers be limited by the need for a material focus, perhaps a nod to the Kaiburr crystal from Splinter of the Mind's Eye by Alan Dean Foster.