Friday, February 27, 2015

EXTERMINATE!! Daleks as a Traveller Variant

I hope you've got your VRF Gauss Gun warmed up . . .

I am a fan of Doctor Who, and have been since high school. This past weekend we watched the 7th Doctor serial Remembrance ofthe Daleks, one of my favorites. It's a nostalgia episode, as the Doctor revisits 1963 and the place where TV audiences first met him. But that's not what I'm on about. The episode got me to think about how well Daleks would work in the milieu of Traveller.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Science for your Game - The Habitable Exoplanets Catalog

The University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo hosts the  Habitable Planets Catalog, a graphical resource on the nearly 1000 exoplanets so far discovered. They include a Primer on Habitable Planets. Traveller players or referees who want exploration missions on 'strange new worlds' will find useful and interesting information.
The Catalog offers basic astronomical data, such as temperature zone, mass, radius and orbital period.  "Warm" planets are those planets in the Habitable Zone where the surface temperature is above the freezing point of water, at least for part of its orbital cycle. "Cold" planets, mostly beyond the habitable zone are below the freezing point of water for the entire cycle. "Hot" planets are nearer to their parent star than the habitable zone. 

From the data in the table, the referee can easily calculate the UWP size code, the surface gravity, and make an educated guess about the Atmosphere and Hydrosphere code. Fill in the Population, Government, Law and Tech levels as you wish.

We are still looking for a planet of similar size, atmosphere and temperature to Earth, like what we see on Star Trek, but the search for exoplanets is a very young branch of astronomy, and even in the last decade or less, the number of confirmed exoplanet findings has grown tremendously.

In Traveller, explorers have access to technology from vacc suits to sealed structures that could allow for colonization of worlds far less habitable than Earth. So the occasional "Earth-like" planet is good and reasonable, but so are all of the inhospitable ones that the world generation tables in Bk 3 produce.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Casual Encounters - Fiona and Sam

Since my post about Michael Westen of Burn Notice was well received, let's round things out by presenting Michael's support team. 

"Should we shoot them?"
Fiona Glenanne     698885      Rogues  5 Terms Age 38   Cr 0-lots
Demolitions-3, Gun Cbt-2, Unarmed Cbt-2, Streetwise-1, Air/raft-1, Blade Cbt-1, Heavy Wpns-1, Interrogation-1, Recon-1

Fiona was/is Michael's long-time love interest. The two met while Michael was under cover, having infiltrated the Bishorian Monarchist movement on Gataneu. (See the entry for the Talaveran Empire.) Fiona did demolitions for them, until her local group leader got too radical and began targeting civilians, including children. Fiona has always had a soft spot for children, and so she broke all ties with the Monarchists.  Michael was pulled from his infiltration mission before this, and the two lost contact for years. They met up again on Bishor after Michael was 'cast out'. Now she uses her skills and her underworld contacts to help Michael on his 'jobs'. 

Like Michael, Fiona's SOC is 5. She cannot reveal her past association with the Monarchists because it is illegal on Bishor to have anything to do with them. Fiona rents rooms legally, but most of her work (apart from Michael) is still criminal, so she cannot integrate into Bishorian society.
Or as he is better known, Chuck Finley.

Sam Axe     889877      Navy Commander  6 terms Age 42   Cr 0-some
Administration-1 Forgery -1, Liaison-2, Carousing-3, Gun Cbt-2, Interrogation-1, Leader-1, Recon-1, Air/raft-1, Unarmed Cbt-2

Sam is Michael's oldest buddy. They've been everywhere and done everything together; Sam's job in the Navy Special Services section led to his missions often overlapping with Michael's. Currently Sam is retired on Bishor, although the reason for his retirement is cloudy. He spends his time womanizing, drinking, and helping Michael on his 'jobs'. Sam's Carousing skill reflects (as much as skills do) his extensive network of contacts, both legal and illegal that provide him with valuable information. 
Sam's SOC is better than either Fiona's or Michael's because of the three he can most honestly admit what he did for a career.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Avoid Skill Bloat! - Using Characteristics in CT

A while ago, I wrote about an aspect of the Classic Traveller rules that is not the most popular, the skill limit. Simply, a PC or NPC can have only as many skill levels in total as the sum of his INT+EDU. In CT that was not often a problem, an 'average' character could have 14 skill levels. But with the expanded character generation options like in Mercenary and High Guard, this would come up. MegaTraveller expanded the skill list a lot, and I understand that later versions of Traveller had more extensive skill lists as well. 

I get the impression from things I've read on the Web, and some conversation with other gamers I know, that big long skill lists have had the unfortunate effect of unconsciously convincing players that their PCs can only do things that have a defined skill on their character sheet. The well-known essay Quick Primer on Old-School Gaming explains this well. It's worth reading. When I referee, especially for my kids, I want them to experiment, to try creative solutions to problems, and experience the fun when something they thought up succeeds.

To allow characters the freedom to try lots of things, and to not run afoul of this balancing rule, I rely on characteristic-based task resolution. Skills to me are the things that you have to be trained in to do competently (think of the NPC-only no weapon skill penalty) but there are plenty of activities that anyone might try to do that aren't covered by CT's brief skill list.

My guiding principle is this : Whenever possible, associate tasks with existing skills & characteristics instead of requiring new skills.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Casual Encounter - Michael Westen

Today I want to illustrate how Classic Traveller, despite its sci-fi orientation, is flexible enough in its rules structure to create characters in other genres as well, like the espionage genre.  I have referred elsewhere to my appreciation for the USA Network show Burn Notice. Here is the show's main character as a Traveller character. 

"I'll see what I can do."
Michael Westen used to be a spy. Until the day for no apparent reason the Imperial Talaveran Ministry of Intelligence "cast him out", leaving him with no money, no job history and no idea why he was suddenly out of a job.

Michael Westen     89A995     Age 34  4 Terms (Other)  Cr 0-lots
Liaison-3, Streetwise-2, J-o-T-3, Electronics-1, Mechanical-1, Air/raft-1, Unarmed Cbt-2, Gun Cbt-2 Tactics-1

Michael now lives in the capital city of Bishor ( B-788795-D). He can't leave the planet, but can move around freely. He has no work record, so he takes whatever work happens to come along. Mostly, Michael solves problems for people. Usually the kind of problem they can't solve by going to the authorities. People call Michael when they have a criminal problem. The client tells Michael what their problem is, and Michael persuades the problem to go away. Sometimes he has to get creative with his persuading, but in the end the problem generally goes away. Most of the time, he succeeds in solving the problem without having to shoot anyone.

PCs who are Talaveran, or have worked with (or against) Talavera may have heard of Michael's reputation. To his clients, he is confident, reassuring and willing to help. To those in the intelligence community he is a highly competent agent who has a long record of accomplishing difficult missions. He is also credited with killing over a dozen spies, and blowing up a debated number of buildings. Taking on Michael Westen with fewer than a platoon of men will not, as they say, "go well."* How much of this is true, only Michael knows. The question of who cast him out and why is always at the front of his mind.

Michael lives by the Reaction table. Most of the 'jobs' he does, he does by assuming a persona, then infiltrating the environ of the person causing the problem. He then persuades the NPC to do something, whether it be leave his patron alone, commit some act that will get them arrested, reveal the secret information or location of the macguffin. What is Michael's #1 go-to skill then?  In Traveller it is Liaison

From the CT Skill description: This individual is trained to subordinate his or her own views and prejudices where they may conflict with those held by the individuals being dealt with. As a result, greater cooperation may be achieved, and substantial progress in mutual projects made. Liaison is primarily used as a positive DM on the reaction table when dealing with other individuals. Now that is a handy skill for a spy. Get the other person to help you, without realizing what they've done. 

Combine this skill with his knowledge of sub-cultures, especially criminal ones, (Streetwise) and overall inventiveness (J-o-T), and you have someone who is rarely at a loss for what to do.  Throw in his combat skills and his vehicle skills, and Michael can go almost anywhere and do just about anything. 

I put his SOC at 5 - he's not exactly a criminal, and apart from government operatives, no one knows about his espionage career. To most Bishorians, he's a guy who's not very plugged into society - he is not married, claims no local University background, he has no regular job and does not participate in many normal civilian activities like sporting or social events. The personae he adopts, however, can be anywhere from SOC-2 to SOC-12.

A common espionage activity is analyzing data. Here's how I work it.

Intelligence Analysis
Intelligence analysis is the practice of taking collected data and distilling from it useful information. As a mostly intellectual exercise, this should take place in the realm of the players, not the characters. Use the intel analysis roll to request a clue or hint from the referee. Typical roll 9+, with DM's for high EDU, high INT or espionage experience. The referee should make the roll in secret, and give true or false 'rumor' type information. This activity should never be used as a roll-playing substitute for solving puzzles presented by the referee.

Streetwise skill can also be used as a DM when Tailing a suspect.

You can read my earlier post on Surveillance for general guidelines on role-playing this common espionage activity. Here are some suggested game mechanics. 

Surveillance is the action of a character observing someone's actions at great length without the subject's notice, or it is an individual detecting that he is being observed. Any surveillance attempt will take 2D hours to accomplish. Both sides make a 2D roll with DMs, the referee keeps the NPC's roll secret. Compare totals to determine the winner.

Dms for Surveillance
+1/lvl of Recon skill, if in a wilderness setting
+1/lvl of Streetwise or Liaison skill in an urban setting
+1 for INT 9+
+1 for vision devices (binoculars, etc.)
+1 for successful Disguise
Winning gets the observer information about the target. Losing means getting no information. Losing by 3+ means the agent is 'made' by the target.

Dms for Counter-surveillance
+1 for EDU 9+
+1 - +3 for electronic security equipment
+1/lvl of Recon skill, if in a wilderness setting
+1/lvl of Streetwise or Liaison skill in an urban setting
Winning means the surveillant got no information. Winning by 3+ means the target has 'made' the observer and can retaliate, or present the observer with false information.  Losing means the surveillance went undetected by the subject. 

*From season 4, episode 7, "Past and Future Tense" - a Russian operative, upon learning who they're up against complains "He is Michael Westen! There are only four of us!"