TRAVELLER: Out of the Box is Driven by ADVENTURE, not Hard Science

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In a discussion about Classic Traveller at G+, someone wrote:

I’ve always wanted to run original traveler but I’ve been reticent because of the verisimilitude of the system – and the fact I know precious little of the sciences. (To run the game well, I believe you’d have to be well versed in the sciences…)

I know this is a common fear for some people. I also know that many people believe the notion that “To run the game well… you have to be well versed in the science.”

I really, strongly, disagree with this sentiment, though I can see why some people might think it. So here’s post about it.

Traveller, at least as originally written, was never about Hard Science Fiction as we know it today. It was about ADVENTURE. It was inspired by the works like the Dumarest series by E.C. Tubb, the Demon Princes series by Jack Vance, the Nicholas van Rijn tales by Poul Anderson, among other SF tales from the 40s to the 70s.

That Traveller could become a playground for gearheads has nothing to with what it has to be.

If you go read the Dumarest books or the Demon Prince books you see tales of adventure in an SF setting… but the focus is not calculating heat exhaust issues, but on skullduggery, theft, assassination, political corruption, fighting abusive power, protecting the weak, revenge, ambition, and more.

The point of the “science fiction” element is to put these tales in the context of exotic setting with strange creatures, alien races, and peculiar technology to heighten the novelty of the adventure and provide mysterious situations the protagonists have to deal with. The stories seldom rely on “real science”–but are self-consistent within themselves, allowing the protagonists to puzzle out anomalies and solve problems that make sense within the tale.

As for translating all this to the table of a Roleplaying Game session: No one at the table will know how a Jump Drive works–which is why die rolls can be made to see if it can be fixed.

This is why I think the procedures for determining Throw values in The Traveller Adventure are so interesting and valuable: The book suggests rolling 2D6 to determine the Throw value! This means the Referee is not responsible for knowing how difficult it is to repair a Jump Drive. His job is to determine a random value of difficulty and adjudicating the results of efforts on the part of the PCs.

The point being that if the Throw to repair the Jump Drive fails (or the Player Characters don’t have the skill required to even make a Mechanical roll), the Referee says, “Yeah, you can’t repair the ship. And you don’t have enough money to get a repair part. But you know how much one costs so you can earn the money. And you know where you can steal one…”

That’s not about science. That’s about adventure.

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CLASSIC TRAVELLER: What “The Traveller” Adventure had to Say About Situation Throws–Personal Characteristics

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In this post I quoted in full a passage from The Traveller Adventure, which describes how to handle Situation Throws in Classic Traveller. I’m following up with a few more addressing specific portions of that passage. None of this is any sort of declaration about how people are “supposed” to play the game. This is my approach, based my thinking after digging into the original Traveller rules.

In this post I’m addressing this portion:

Personal Characteristics: Many cases can be resolved by looking at the character’s personal characteristics (strength, dexterity, endurance, intelligence, and so on) which are appropriate to the situation. For example, in lifting or forcing large objects, strength might be most appropriate; a more delicate situation could depend on dexterity.

The referee should instruct the player character to throw the characteristic or less on two dice. The higher the characteristic, the greater the chance of accomplishing the goal. Relatively easy situations might call for rolling the sum of two characteristics or less; harder situations might have a positive DM to reduce the chance of success.

I can see the ease of rolling 2D6 under a Player Characteristic’s characteristic. However, as I outline in this post I am not fond of using characteristic rolls. There are several reasons, each explained at length. The short version is:

  • I don’t like systems where you roll under a target sometimes, and roll over a target other times. It means positive DMs are sometimes added, and other times subtracted, while negative DMs are sometimes subtracted or added, depending on whether or not one is trying to roll high or low. I find all of this inelegant and honestly can get confusing at the table as one has to keep remembering if the roll is high or low and if positive or negative DMs or added or subtracted.
  • I want a system where the odds of a success vary based on the situation at hand and are not on a fixed characteristic. For example, if one rolls against characteristics, the odds of solving a situation based on Intelligence is the same for a given character in every situation. Yes, one can apply DMs. But as stated above, that can produce roll high/roll low special cases and confusion.

However, characteristics should apply to a given situation. We know this because the rules as written in Traveller Books 1, 2, and 3 make it clear they should. The skill descriptions make it clear that characteristics should often affect Throws. We also know that certain high or low characteristics trigger positive or negative DMs for weapons.

What I want, then, is a set of procedures grown from the examples already set out in the original rules. I want this because the original rules are strong and it keeps the game consistent.

One possibility is to have the Referee create specific DMs based on characteristics situation by situation. This is perfectly viable. The problem, as I’ve seen it in practice, is that the Players want a more consistent sense of how their character’s characteristics will affect gameplay.

After thinking about it a long while I came up with my own solution. I offer the following procedure. It is built from the original Traveller rules, but makes sense for the kind of game I want.

  1. We start with our basic formula of Situation Throws
    2D6 +/- DM ≥ Throw Value equals success
  2. If an applicable characteristic is 9+ and higher than the Throw value, the character receives a DM +1 to the roll
  3. For every two points the characteristic exceeds the Throw value, the character receives and additional DM +1 to the roll
  4. If the Throw value is 15 or higher, any applicable characteristic of F will receive a DM +1
  5. If an applicable characteristic is 4- the character receives a DM -1 to the roll
  6. If an applicable characteristic is 2- the character receives a DM -2 to the roll
  7. The determination of what, if any, characteristics are applicable is determined on a situation-by-situation basis.

Notice what this gets us:

  • Players have a consistent sense of what their characteristics offer
  • Higher characteristics offer better +DMs, and exceptional characteristics (in the 12-15 range) might end up offering exceptional benefits
  • Sometimes the Referee will want a Throw value that requires exceptional DMs. As the passage in The Traveller Adventure states: “It is even possible for a referee to make the situation number greater than 12, thus making success impossible unless the players can provide necessary skills or tools with DMs to get their throw also above 12.” With the method above, a character caught up in a situation with a Throw Value of 13 or higher will receive at least a DM +1. This means rolls that might otherwise be impossible might be possible–though other DMs wrangled from other fictional details and circumstances might be required as well.
  • Low characteristic provide -DMs in a consistent manner, so the character’s handicaps can come into play but not feel arbitrary.
  • Unlike the later Task systems introduced to Traveller, a characteristic is not a presumed or required part of a Throw. If the characteristic is applicable, if applies. If it does not, it does not. This feeds into my general philosophy of original Traveller Throws: They are not a “skill check” testing the character, but rather an impartial, random resolution in which the character’s abilities are only a part of the situation’s outcome.
  • The system also means that even if you have a high or exceptional characteristic you can still be outclassed by the problem. If the PC has a strength of B, but the Throw value is 12, then the PC can’t depend on his strength to change the situation for the better. I understand this might be non-intuitive to many people (“If I’m really strong, why doesn’t the quality of my strength help every time strength can help?”) But we’re looking at those times when the airlock is jammed so much you would need an even higher strength of it to help. In a 2D6 bell curve a +1 to the roll is a really big deal. I want those DMs for when a characteristic can help crush a problem. In other circumstances, the PC will need to find other methods of getting DMs if he or she wants to change the odds. For gameplay, I really like how this works out.

I completely understand that the methods above might not work for other people. And once I put them into practice I might well make adjustments. But given the premise I started with in my Traveller: Out of the Box series (that the rules in Traveller Books 1, 2, and 3 do work; my job was to start with that premise rather than assume they needed to be fixed; and to extrapolate any further applications of the rules from the text in those books) I’m very happy with where I’ve landed.

Using Original TRAVELLER Out of the Box–Symera Subsector at Dragon’s Breakfast

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The premise of the Traveller: Out of the Box series is that the original Traveller rules were a framework to allow a Referee to create his or her own settings to share with friends. Here’s an example of this in action:


From the blog Dragon’s Breakfast Chris S. has posted information Symera, a Classic Traveller subsector.

There is more information on the post. But here is a sample:

BACKGROUND

The “Edge of Night” sector includes over 400 star systems and marks the furthest spinward expansion of humanity from The Earth Before. The name refers to “The Night”; a vast of rift of dust and gas, devoid of star systems, and much too wide to cross with existing jump technology. No one knows what lies beyond “The Night”; likewise, many of the sectors’ inhabited systems are largely unknown to those in more civilized space.

The Symera subsector sits near the centre of the sector. Its 32 systems exhibit a technological and population pattern typical of those regions of space devastated by the Nanite Epidemic. The high tech planets tend to be depopulated and struggle to maintain existing technology levels, while lower technology worlds have higher populations, as they were either unaffected by the epidemic and/or absorbed a great number of refugees fleeing it’s devastation. Even 400 years later, this pattern is evident. Although, as always, some individual systems are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Politically, the subsector is roughly divided between a mix of independent systems and the allied worlds of the Triple Concordance (which lies completely within the subsector).  In addition, polities from outside the subsector intrude to trailing (Hegemony of Aeo), while to spinward in the Xiaochen subsector are the worlds of the Technocratic Union.

POLITICS

Hegemony of Aeo
“The Hemegeny has no need for fanaticism; cold practicality and logic will guide us to our destiny.”
— Special Inquisitor Sivara Tizen

In the aftermath of the Fourth Interstellar war, several new and radical polities arose among the shattered remnants of the old republics.  Spinward of the old core of civilized space, the theocratic and militaristic  Hegemony of Aeo became the dominant state. In the century since the rule of “The One” began, the Hegemony has gradually but relentlessly expanded outward, swallowing independent systems and pocket empires alike. The Hegmony first appeared in the Symera subsector 30 years ago, absorbing several independent planets on the trailing border of the subsector. Though not actively expansionistic in the subsector at the moment, it continues to push its influence and policies when prudent.

The Triple Concordance
“From many comes one; though the one must never forget who comes first.”
— Chief Executive Administrator Galvin of Antigone

Faced with the threat of the Hegemony of Aeo to the trailing and the Technocratic Union systems to the spinward, several of the previously independent worlds at the core of the Symera subsector grudgingly accepted cooperation over capitulation. The three most advanced systems  (Rastafar [0207], Tortuga [0506] and Antigone [0606]) initially joined in an alliance, and then dragged in the adjacent  lower tech and less powerful systems to provide resources and buffer zones against the threats surrounding them.  The three founding worlds rule as the Tri-Council, while the other ten systems sit on a General Council which can provide advice and feedback, but has little say in decision making. The Concordance has held up well when there is a clear and immediate threat, but in less hazardous times, relations are shaky and worlds act more in their independent self interest.

Technocratic Union
“Those who rule their technology need not fear it, but may rule by it.”
— Councillor Gaius Ralu

A very loosely confederated group of high technology worlds, the Technocratic Union uses its technological advantages to gain influence over less advanced systems. It is surrounded by a loose network of client systems which gain advantages in high technology and trade from the Union. In the Symera subsector, both Vordenhaven (0104) and Symera (0205) have close ties with the Union.

Notice that three major political players are all in one subsector. Remember that in 1977 edition of Traveller Book 3 the game assumed that one subsector would be enough to keep a game going for months, if not years. (The term “sector” does not appear at all in the 1977 rules.)

Is this true? Well, looking at the power struggle sketched in just a few paragraphs it seems to me that countless schemes and conflicts are already in motion–plenty of grist for any RPG session. The first few sessions, if not months of play, could take place on one to three worlds depending on what the Player Characters focus on.

Moreover, look at the clever conceit Chris has concocted for the subsector: The Nanite Epidemic. As the text says, “The high tech planets tend to be depopulated and struggle to maintain existing technology levels, while lower technology worlds have higher populations.” This offers unexpected situations, needs, and conflicts in the Symera subsector. He has a central conceit tied to a past that could possibly be a threat in the future. (I honestly don’t know.) But it feels like something science-fiction-y is going on here.

As the high tech worlds struggle to regain power they possessed pre-Epidemic, it seems to me there will be deep motives for lots of conflict and adventure. Even in one subsector with 32 worlds there is going to be plenty for the Player Characters to do!

Remember, you don’t need a whole empire’s worth of material to engage Players in game of Classic Traveller. Build an interesting subsector worth digging into and they’ll have a fine time right there.

CLASSIC TRAVELLER: What “The Traveller” Adventure had to Say About Situation Throws

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Several months ago Mike Wightman pointed me to pages 28 and 29 of The Traveller Adventure (1983). On these pages the writers lay out how to use the “playing pieces” including in Traveller to resolve situations.

Two years later DPG would publish their Traveller Task System in the first issue of the Travellers Digest. But this passage assumes the Traveller rules don’t need to be “fixed.” It uses the rules found in Traveller Books 1-3 as is and explains clearly how the Referee can use them to keep the game interesting and moving along with several applications.

THE USES OF DIE ROLLS
As players in a Traveller game venture out into the universe, they immediately face a wide variety of circumstances and situations. Many times, procedures already exist for the resolution of a situation (for example, combat, animal encounters, or patrons), but if not, the referee is thrown back on his or her own resources in handling the problem.

There are several reasonable and efficient methods of dealing with unexpected situations. These include use of personal characteristics, situation throws, and reaction throws.

Personal Characteristics: Many cases can be resolved by looking at the character’s personal characteristics (strength, dexterity, endurance, intelligence, and so on) which are appropriate to the situation. For example, in lifting or forcing large objects, strength might be most appropriate; a more delicate situation could depend on dexterity.

The referee should instruct the player character to throw the characteristic or less on two dice. The higher the characteristic, the greater the chance of accomplishing the goal. Relatively easy situations might call for rolling the sum of two characteristics or less; harder situations might have a positive DM to reduce the chance of success.

Reaction Throws: Any non-player character can make a reaction throw to determine relative disposition and reaction to the adventuters (see Reactions, The Traveller Book, page 102). This reaction number can also be used as the required throw or less for the individual to assist or help the group. DMs for appropriate skills are allowed, or for common background (such as both non-player character and player character having served in the same service).

In addition, the referee can rarely go wrong implementing a DM of + 1 or – 1 for some miscellaneous item which the players suggest, such as friendliness or appearance of affluence. For example, if the adventurers are encountering an express boat pilot and one player character comments that she has always admired the efficiency of the xboat service, then the referee can easily allow a DM + 1 for the exchange. Too many such DMs can easily ruin a game, so moderation is advised.

Situation Throws: In the absence of any other guidance, the referee may always resort to the situation throw. When an incident first occurs, throw two dice to determine its relative severity. A low roll means that it is easy, a high roll means comparative difficulty. The number achieved is now the situation number. The player characters involved, when they attempt to deal with the situation, must roll the situation number or higher on two dice. They are, of course, allowed DMs based on any appropriate skills. Tools, assistance, and equipment may also provide beneficial DMs; weather, haste, adverse environment, or other handicaps may impose negative DMs. It is even possible for a referee to make the situation number greater than 12, thus making success impossible unless the players can provide necessary skills or tools with DMs to get their throw also above 12.

Example of Throws: An adventurer (46797A) has experienced a malfunction in the drive room of her vessel. The situation seems hopeless at the moment and she is forced to abandon ship. The air lock hatch, however, is warped shut. A quick resolution to the problem is to state that she must roll strength or less to force it open. After several unsuccessful rolls, she casts about for a pry bar to help her. The referee arbitrarily rulas that the bar allows – 4 on the die roll (the referee could guess or roll one die for the result).

On the next roll, the adventurer is successful; then she makes her way to the ship’s locker for her vacc suit. Grabbing a survival pack, she proceeds to abandon ship. She knows that the drives cannot stand the strain much longer, and that she must get out immediately.

The referee decides that the drives will explode on 9+ in the current turn, 8+ in the next turn, and so on, The referee decides that the character’s last minute repair attempts have been partially successful, and he increases the needed roll by her level of engineering skill (2) to 11+ . The adventurer needs to find a survival kit before she leaves the ship, but one extra turn will be needed to gather it up. The referee rolls to see if the ship explodes this turn (11+). It does not, and she grabs the survival kit. On the second turn, she cycles through the ajr lock while the referee checks for an explosion again (10+ this time); once more the ship remains intact. On the third turn, while the character is drifting away from the ship, the referee rolls 11 and the drives explode (9+ was needed).

The distress call from her radio attracts a local asteroid miner. He is required by custom and law to pick her up, but may not like being diverted to an unprofitable rescue mission. The referee rolls two dice for his reaction: the result is 4.

She must now convince him to take her to the local starport so that she can arrange salvage of her ship. She may add any applicable skills, such as streetwise, bribery, even -1 for intelligence 9+ if the referee thinks this appropriate. Obviously, in a situation such as this, repeated requests will not be possible (or they may be allowed, at- 1 per additional request). Probably she only gets to try once. Even with DMs totalling – 3, she rolls an 8, which does not convince the miner to go out of his way to help her. She is stuck on his ship until he finishes his prospecting run of (the referee rolls one die) 4 months. Judging by his reaction roll to her, he’ll probably make her pay for room and board as well.


Some of the above I love, and some I’m not fond of. So there’s a lot to unpack here… and I will in future posts.

In this post, however, I want to throw attention on this one passage:

Situation Throws: In the absence of any other guidance, the referee may always resort to the situation throw. When an incident first occurs… determine its relative severity. The number achieved is now the situation number. The player characters involved, when they attempt to deal with the situation, must roll the situation number or higher on two dice. They are, of course, allowed DMs based on any appropriate skills. Tools, assistance, and equipment may also provide beneficial DMs; weather, haste, adverse environment, or other handicaps may impose negative DMs. It is even possible for a referee to make the situation number greater than 12, thus making success impossible unless the players can provide necessary skills or tools with DMs to get their throw also above 12.

After rooting about Traveller Books 1-3, it became clear to me, even before reading the passage above, that this is exactly how Miller assumed a Referee should use the Traveller rules.

That there are people on Traveller focused sites convinced I’m simply making up nonsense procedures (and there are a few) has always startled me. It seems so obvious once you look at the text of the three books holistically. The improvised adjudication of situation is part and parcel of the game culture of the mid-70s.

Now, this doesn’t mean people should run the game this way. I want people to run the game the way they want to run it. I’m only hoping that this passage from The Traveller Adventure will make it clear I’ve only been saying what the folks at GDW would have said as well.

Fallen World Campaign [LotFP]–Twenty-Fourth Session

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We picked up the game with the Player Characters leaving earth via a magical ship and heading off the shore of the Qelong Valley on an alternate earth. As the approached the city of Qompang on the mouth of the Qelong River they saw other three masted ships, each flying flags of nations they knew from Europe.

But each flag was slightly altered: The flag of England, for example, had the red cross on white field that they knew, but in its center was the silhouette of a knight jamming a lance though the neck of a dragon. The flag of France had the flowers on a field of blue, but each appears to be in a crystal ball. The flag of the Holy Roman empire showed the double-headed eagle, but its talons held a bleeding serpent.

They anchored in Qelong Bay and took one squad of ten men (out of their company of ten squads) by rowboat to investigate the city. They saw fisherman around them in sampans, men and women of dark to peach colored skin, and saw before them the city was built of stonework with spires and odd towers. The Southeastern feel of the land came quickly into focus.

They arrived at the Factory — the section of town controlled by European merchants — and began doing research in the town, looking for clues about the valley beyond the city walls.

They befriended several merchants (one from Germany, one from France) as well as an Elf who had joined the French entourage. (The elves of this world live apart from men… but a few are curious about the way of humankind, adopt their customs, and live among them).

The elf gave them a look to suggest he knew they were more than travelers from Europe and might suspect they were from another world. He later confronted them, not out of aggression but from curiosity, and they exchanged a few theories about the nature of alternate realities. (Whether or not he has another agenda regarding them, the Lamplighters (which is what the Player Characters call themselves) do not know.)

They also explored the overcrowd city beyond the walls of the Factory. Ending up in a teahouse they met a slave in her early twenties who had one of her hands cut cleanly off a few years earlier. (All of this was clear from observing the stump.) They wanted to talk to her about it, but she said she could not. So they bought her from her owner, and she joined the group. She explained that sometimes, out in the Qelong Valley, people can get sick and the only way to stop the sickness from spreading is to cut off the left hand.

As they encountered and spoke with NPCs I rolled on the rumor table included in the Qelong book and they learned about The Mine of the Elephant, the fact that the land seems to be poisoned (from the slave, for example), that another wizard was looking for the same canister they were looking for, that the capital city of Xam had not been heard from for decades, and that a company of mercenaries from the lands of the Holy Roman Empire had taken over a town up river.

This led to a discussion between the Players about what options to pursue.

Armed with this information they headed out on a riverboat, traveling up the Qelong River to investigate the mercenaries. Their slave traveled with them along with a German who had been up and down the river for years and would serve as a guide.

The Heart of the Classic Traveller Rules — For Me

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Different people focus on different things in Classic Traveller.

For a lot of people Classic Traveler is:

  1. Generating Characters
  2. Generating Subsectors and Main Worlds
  3. Making Starships

That’s where the fun is for a lot of people and for a lot of people it’s enough.

This makes sense. The three actives listed above are, in of themselves, fun. It’s also stuff a person can do on his or her own without needing to gather a group. I think the fact that those three activities are fun and can be done alone is one of the reasons Classic Traveller has stirred the imaginations of those in the hobby for so long.

But here’s the thing. For me those three elements are not what Classic Traveller is about. In fact, what I think Classic Traveller is about is something that I a lot of people who love Classic Traveller even think much about.

For me characters having adventures is what the Traveller rules are really about. That is, characters, in motion, in play, doing things. You can generate lots of player characters and never get around to putting them in motion. You can generate lots of worlds and a player character will never set foot on them. You can build ships and a player character will never travel in it.

Now there’s nothing wrong with focusing on the enjoyable aspects that have nothing to do with putting characters into motion. But, again, my focus is player characters caught up in adventures. That is, my interest is to getting characters into motion in exotic worlds having great adventures. That is, my focus is on playing the game as an RPG.

This is why so many of the TRAVELLER: Out of the Box posts have been about Referee driven play and how to handle Throws. Because when characters are doing things in play the Referee and the dice will be stepping up to see things moving.

Now for a lot of people the rules of Classic Traveller are either broken or nonexistent when it comes to how to adjudicate situations or handle Throws. It is why The Traveller’s Digest #1 invented a new way of handling skills in 1984, and why many people focus on the character creation, the building of subsectors, the designing of ships.

In my view however, as discussed in many of my posts, the rules work fine. In fact, more than fine. They are the strength of the game.

With all that in mind, my view these days is that those three systems above take a back seat to getting around to playing the game.

And what is the rule for playing the game?

2D6 +/- DM ≥ Throw Value equals success

If you made me choose between that formula and the character creation system found in Classic Traveller, I can tell you right now I’m choosing the formula.

Because what matters to me most about creating a character in Traveller is that the character has six characteristics, skills, a prior occupation of some kind, and an age. With those four qualities I can use the flexible, on the fly system found in Classic Traveller to adjudicate any situation and keep the game moving along quickly.

I posted an example of this approach a couple of weeks ago. Because of time constraints (it was a convention game with a four hour slot, and I wanted to try the rules in a non-SF setting as an experiment) I bypassed the standard character creation system. As I wrote:

I handed out an index card to each player for characters: “Assign the values 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 to STR, DEX, END, INT, EDU, and Social Status. Add +2 to two of those, or a single +4 to one. Give yourself a profession and write that on the top of the card. You character can do all thing things that that profession can do. Then add three more skills, the things you are really good at, which might tie to your profession or be something else. Assign a +1, a +2, and a +3, respectively to each of the skills as you see fit. Tell me who your character cares about in the village. Tell me about the god your character pays homage to. Give your character a name.”

Although we didn’t use the character creation system per the rules, what I did have was characters with the numbers I need to adjudicate situations on the fly and handle Throws as needed. Because how we made the characters is not the priority for me. The player characters in motion in an adventure is the priority for me.

Strangely, some people said I had gutted the game by blowing past Classic Traveller’s character creation rules — which they consider the “heart of the game.”

To which I say, “No, playing the game is the heart of the game. And that heart is found in the Players doing things with their PCs and the Referee adjudicating and moving things forward to the next things the Players want to have their characters do.”

To sum up then, the heart of the game is this:

2D6 +/- DM ≥ Throw Value equals success

All the pieces of the game lead to this simple formula for creating Throws. Character Creation, Law Levels, Animal Encounters, the Reaction Table, the Personal Combat System, the Starship Combat System… all of it. This is the heart of the game, the brilliance of Classic Traveller. Because it lets you play the game. If you have this, the Referee can keep adjudicating, the adventurers can keep adventuring, and the game keeps moving.

Using Original TRAVELLER Out of the Box — Rick Stump’s The Clash of Stars

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The premise of the Traveller: Out of the Box series is that the original Traveller rules were a framework to allow a Referee to create his or her own settings to share with friends. Here’s an example of this in action:


Classic Traveller Campaign the Clash of Stars: Setting Details

Over at Don’t Split the Party Rick Stump is setting up a setting for play with the Classic Traveller rules.

Here are notes on the general setting. A sample:

General Setting

  • The Terran Confederation is so long collapsed no one in the sectors of space near the game setting is certain in which *direction* Man’s homeworld may be found.
  • No intelligent aliens, at all.
  • 80% or so of inhabited worlds are ‘stand alone’ and have no interstellar government
  • Interstellar trade is almost ubiquitous and mainly of three sorts
    • run by local planets out 1-3 parsecs
    • trade guilds and co-ops on runs between 3-8 worlds
    • independent freighters running either their own routes or wandering about
  • General tech level for independent worlds  is 7-9 with 9 a pretty hard ceiling and 7 a soft floor
  • There are scattered interstellar nations of 2-7 inhabited worlds. Almost all are Tech 9
    Although most planets have a Dorsai universe median (meaning that while some worlds are heavy into farming, others into manufacturing, some into arts and soft science, etc. they all are still close enough to each other culturally for it to not interfere with communications and trade) some worlds have gotten very strange.

Then Player Characters will start in the Lanxing Comity…

… an alliance of 3 inhabited worlds all within Jump 1 of each other. The worlds have a mixed Chinese/Spanish heritage with a relatively strong class structure and their economy and culture based upon a Manorial system. The blending of Catholic religion and Confucian social ideas led to them weathering the long centuries the Cycles of Collapse with a strong social cohesion, positive outlook, and a commitment to charity and justice.

This post drills down into greater detail about the Lanxing Comity:

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The Lanxing Comity
The Lanxing Comity is centered around 3 worlds that all have TL9 and the capacity to build and maintain FTL craft. These planets are ruled by a single King (Catalan) and a web of nobles spread over the 14 worlds of the Comity. Alongside the nobility is the Interstellar Bureaucracy which ensures that the far-flung worlds run smoothly despite such things as communications lag, death of a noble, invasion, etc.

Beyond the Comity is the Twelve Moons Trade Cooperative that operates among 5 TL6-TL8 planets nearby and uses their wealth to purchase FTL craft from the Comity (and have them repaired). The various worlds of the TMTC have a variety of governments and cultures, have no truly coherent “outside diplomacy”, but act as a trading bloc.

There are also independent worlds beyond the Comity and outside the TMTC. TL4-TL8 with a wide range of governments and cultures the ones closest to the Comity often have trade with independent merchants from the Comity.

Lanxing Itself
The core worlds of Catalan, Biscay, and Fujian appear to have originally been settled by groups intent on ‘recreation’, a term for those elements of the Terran Diaspora that wanted to emulate specific periods of Terran history and territory in space. In this case, Late Medieval Spain, the Spain of the Age of Sail, and a stylized Classical China. The interaction of these three forces over time developed into the Lanxing Comity.

The primary language is Spatha which is Spanish with a number of Mandarin loan words (pronounced in the Spanish manner). The primary religion is Catholic (using Ecclesial Latin), although a number of Chinese holidays are secular festivals. The currency is the real.

The government is feudal technocratic with a blending of Spanish nobility, Imperial Chinese bureaucracy, and European civil service.

People use Spanish conventions for personal names with a tradition of “translating” non-Spanish names into Spanish (Rob Roy would become Roberto Rojo or even Roberto Ruiz; Tom Swift would become Tomas Vencejo; etc.). Initial introductions tend to use the full name so that if you met Tom Swift for the first time he would introduce himself as ‘Tomas Alberto Vencejo y Nestor’.

Through religious traditions almost all adults have 2 given names – one granted at birth and a second at confirmation. By cultural tradition a person receives more given names as their social status increases beyond a certain point so for each level of SOC above 8 the character will have an additional name (increases to SOC as an adult do not count!) so a character that begins with a SOC score of A will have 4 given names (their ‘first name’ plus 2 given names for social status, plus a Confirmation. There is also a tradition of using the names and titles of Saints as given names leading to people of high status among the Lanxing Comity having names that appear stunningly long to people used to Anglo-saxon names, such as ‘Pedro Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Martyr Patricio Clito Ruíz y Rodriguez’.

Rick then breaks down the noble structure in the Comity.

Nobles
Following the ranking scheme of traditional Spanish nobility there are both titles or nobility and the three levels of Grandes de Lanxing, or Grandees.

The titles and their SOCs:
Don/Dona*………………..SOC 9 +
Senor/Senora**………..SOC B

Baron/Baronesa***….SOC C
Conde/Condesa………..SOC D
Marques/Marquesa…SOC E
Duque/Duquesa……….SOC F

*’Don’ or ‘Dona’ can be applied as an honorific to anyone above SOC 8 except the royal family.
** While courteously applied to almost everyone as titles of nobility roughly equal to ‘Lord’ in English they are not omitted when speaking to nobles.
***The titles of Vizconde/Vizcondesa are usually (but not always) used by the children of Condes and above and are equivalent to Baron in precedence.

The levels of Grandee are simply third (lowest) through first (highest). Only about 60% of Lanxing nobles are also Grandees; of Grandees 70% are Third rank, 25% are Second rank and only 5% are First rank.

Within levels of Grandees (none, third, etc.) noble rank determines authority but levels of Grandee are more important. For example, Duque de la Cruz has no grandee rank, Conde Ruiz is of Third rank, Baron Rodriguez is of Second rank, and Senor (the lowest rank that can be a Grandee) Diego is of First rank.  In social precedence (seating, introductions, entrance into a room, who bows to whom, etc.) de la Cruz is top. But in matters of political and military decision making Senor Diego has the greatest level of authority.

Not only am I fond of this in Real Life it really works with Traveller, doesn’t it?

“Bob, my character started with a SOC of C and I got a +1 from service and another +1 from mustering out, so I am a Count. Shouldn’t I be rich and rule, like, a solar system?”

“Frank, you have a high SOC but you aren’t a grandee. So you get invited to all the parties, the end.”

On a related note, in my campaign if a character with a high SOC score takes the Noble profession and gets a Promotion (pretty rare) if they are already SOC B or better they can shoose to stay the same SOC but become a Grandee!!

And then Rick goes into more details about the function of government in the setting.

Bureaucrats
The Lanxing Bureaucracy originated in the recreated Confucian bureaucracy of the founders of Fujian modified by their exposure to European and other civil services. Entrance into the lower levels of the bureaucracy are based upon education and performance on standardized entrance exams. Promotion is based on passing more advanced exams, performance evaluations, and job performance. The Bureaucracy is a complex maze of departments, committees, boards, projects, and independent managers and overseers with an interplay of jurisdiction, precedence, rank, and mandates that makes the complexity of noble and Grandee titles appear dead simple.

How Governance Works
The King has ultimate authority, although this is rather limited by tradition. The Stellar Navy and the standing Army answer only to the King, for example, while local militias are raised by Nobles. Grandees control specific territory and are responsible for administering those territories in accordance with Royal Law but can also pass their own territorial laws if they do no clash with Royal Law.  Local police report to the local grandee but each police force has a senior officer (usually not the commander) appointed by the King in charge of oversight. Tax collection, regulatory enforcement, etc. are all also local with one or two royal appointees as oversight.

The Bureaucracy has three levels; local, regional, and royal. Each department monitors for graft, corruption, criminal activity, gross incompetence, etc. Grandees have a senior Bureaucrat appointed to their staff that exists to both provide advice on things like royal law and regulatory compliance and to watch for corruption and treason.

Other departments of the Bureaucracy watch the Bureaucracy itself for collusion, corruption, graft, etc. and those departments are, in turn, monitored by Grandees appointed specifically to check the power of the Bureaucracy.

In order to prevent this from turning into a massive war of intelligence agencies and secret police the ultimate authority (the King and Royal Family, the Royal Guard, and the Royal Advisors, collectively called the Crown) have two strict policies in place; transparency and transition.   Transparency means that the results of all investigations must be made public, no transaction that do not involve Intelligence can be kept from the public, and that the jurisdiction, background, etc. of all Bureaucrats be accessible. There are exceptions for undercover work, intelligence agents, etc. but these have their own oversight.

Transition means that no bureaucrat can remain in a particular position for too long. The average tenure is 3 years but can be as short at 4 months but no longer than 5 years. Bureaucrats are generally prohibited from working on their hometowns/districts, with family members, etc., and usually do not work with the same team more than once. Bureaucrat Tom, currently in charge of oversight on Joe, may find himself working for, or under oversight by, Joe in just a year or two. Combined transparency and transition are meant to prevent the creation of ‘bureaucratic fiefdoms’ and networks of influence.

Lastly, all payroll costs of the Bureaucracy are paid directly from only the King’s accounts, meaning the more Bureaucrats the bigger the personal expense to the King. At the same time, the King is usually held responsible for graft and corruption among his subordinates. As a result the King is very invested in making sure the Bureaucracy is as small, agile, and efficient as possible while still eradicating graft and corruption.

With Grandees performing local leadership and the Bureaucracy providing oversight the Comity functions fairly smoothly despite having an administrative class only a fraction the size of those familiar with 21st Century Europe.

Trade and Diplomacy
To Lanxing trade and diplomacy are intimately connect to each other and to the nobility. Members of the diplomatic corps are often of high social status, even including non-Grandee nobles. Trade from outside the Comity usually faces stiff tariffs and other customs fees but with sponsorship by a grandee or the Crown these fees can be reduced significantly. Since non-Grandee nobles are themselves subject to reduced customs fees a fair number of them go into interstellar trade. Also, very successful merchants can be elevated to the nobility because of the wealth their trade brings to the Comity.

Some nobles (usually not Grandees) also use their wealth, personal training, etc. to work for the Crown as unofficial diplomats (this is a fair amount of the Noble profession) within and without the Comity. They may travel with merchants, in their own yachts, as leader of a small mercenary company, or otherwise as they ‘Tour’ outside the Comity, but their underlying goal is to improve the reputation of the Comity and its King. A nobleman with his own merchant ship may very well be pursuing the multiple goals of corporate commerce, interstellar diplomacy, personal wealth, and family advancement all at once.

Culturally and politically the Comity is dedicated to service. While their trade with nearby systems does seek overall profit to the Comity and the Crown diplomats, nobles, and even merchants also strive to help the sick, the poor, and the lost wherever they go.

Please note that all of the above is for only a section of the subsector mapped above! Other portions of the subsector will have their own cultures and governments.

I quoted the description of the Lanxing Comity at length to make two points:

First, look at how Rick has made is own setting. He is clearly using the Classic Traveller rules, but he is working from the rules to make his own setting. Which is exactly what the Classic Traveller rules are there to do: help you to create a cool setting you wanted to share with your friends. (Or, in Rick’s case, his sons.)

Second, one of the things I really liked about what he’s posted is his section on nobility. Keep in mind that if you look on line you’ll find lots of people dithering about the Social Status rules in Classic Traveller and saying, “Oh, my gosh, the rules don’t tell me what Social Status means!”

But Rick doesn’t do that. Instead, he looked at the rules, saw there was a thing called Social Status, and said, “Oh, there’s a thing called Social Status and I get to decide that that’s going to mean for my setting.”

And, again, I believe that’s what the Classic Traveller rules were designed to do! The three original Traveller Books (1, 2, and 3) offer a collection of “playing pieces” the Referee gets to pick up and use as he sees fit to build the kind of environment he wants to share with his friends.

The same holds true, in my view, of how to define the various definition of government type, what jumpspace is, what psionic powers are, exactly how the Traveller Aid Society works. All if it is mentioned in passing in the rules, but grist for the mill for any Referee to use as he sees fit for his or her setting.

When I asked Rick about this he replied:

Yeah! I remember when I joined the Traveller Mailing List about 20 years ago and there was a long argument about “What does Feudal technocracy’ mean?” And all I could think was “Make it up, change it, remove it, or whatever, why the fighting?”

Exactly.

TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–You are Not Your Numbers

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art: Lazar Kacarevic

A while back, David McGrogan (author of the excellent Soon-Yuinposted at his blog:

Whether Sartre was right about the real world, in the world of D&D, existence precedes essence. Your character sheet is really just numbers. You are free to do with your character what you wish. You can choose to be good, bad, cruel, kind, friendly, cold, brave or cowardly. A D&D PC is defined by himself and his actions (well, those of the strange demigod, known as the “player”, who inhabits him).

Do you want to be a reckless wizard? A cowardly fighter? A profane cleric? Do you want to kill orc babies or try to reform them? Do you want to amass personal wealth or give it all away? It’s your decision. Nobody else’s.

In this and many ways, RPGs are – perhaps uniquely among games – an exercise in freedom. In any other game you can think of, be it cricket or chess, your field of action is restricted and limited by rules. In an RPG there are really no such restrictions (or at least, there don’t have to be). Your freedom is constrained by the other players and social convention, of course; you can’t just sit at the table and openly masturbate, or eat the dice, or whatever, but that’s true of all other games as well. Where it matters, in an RPG there are no constraints.

Does this mean anything? I’m not sure, but I’ll hazard this: playing an RPG gives you an interesting insight into agency. It may be that we are all just bundles of neurons who go around reacting to things and then rationalising our decisions after the fact, as it now seems fashionable for neuroscientists to argue. But playing an RPG you get a relatively unfiltered understanding of what agency is and means: the power to make decisions and choices and then act on them.

I post this in reference to the original Traveller rules, because for some people the rules seem too light. “Who is my guy?” they might ask. Or, “My character only has six characteristics and two skills. Who is she?”

David’s point is that who your character is is what your character does. Using the characteristics of Strength, Dexterity, Endurance, Intelligence, Education, Social Standing, and your skills, as well as age and career branch, as a springboard for understanding your Player Character, you get to create your character based on what they want, what actions they’ll take to get what they want, and how they’ll go about getting what they want.

Modern RPGs are insistent that all these matters should be on one’s character sheet. (And certainly I love games that record matters of character, like King Arthur Pendragon.) But there is a wisdom as well in letting the rules sit back a little, offering the Players characteristics and skills that affect the odds of die rolls but letting the Players fill out the rest. This allows the Player Characters to be discovered as play rolls on, and change in significant ways, without bogging down the game with excess rules and die rolls that move the game away from choosing to do things and seeing how they turn out.

Always remember the example of character creation found in Traveller Book 1. Marc Miller invests the character with all sorts of details from the process that go well beyond the mechanical die rolls of rolling up skills.

JAMISON: Having just finished school, Jamison sets out to win his fortune in the world. Taking stock in himself and his personal qualities [generate all six characteristics; he rolls, consecutively 6, 8, 8, 12, 8, 9] he soon decides that his UPP of 688C89 adapts him best for the Merchant service. He visits the local starport, checks out the situation [required roll of 7+ to enlist, with a DM of +2 allowed for his intelligence of greater than 6; he rolls 5 (+2=7)] and just barely manages to convince the captain to let him sign on.

During his first term of service [survival roll required is 5+, with a DM of +2 allowed for intelligence; he rolls 11 (+2=13)] he faces no great dangers, merely ordinary day-to-day events. His application for a commission [required roll of 4+, DM of +7 allowed for intelligence; he rolls 7 (+1=8)] is a mere formality. As a 4th Officer, he proves hard working and efficient, [promotion roll required of 10+, with a DM of +1 for intelligence; he rolls 10 (+1=11)] and quickly receives a promotion to 3rd Officer. Jamison clearly feels he has found his place in life, and decides that he would like to continue in service [reenlistment roll of 4+ required, no DMs; he rolls 7] and reenlists. He has become eligible for four skills during this term of service (two for initial term of service, one for obtaining a commission, and one for being promoted): the work as 4th Officer was, at times, strenuous [Table 1, roll 1= +1 Strength] but he certainly developed his muscles. While learning the ropes of his job and of dealing with people [Table 1, roll 5= blade combat] he learns to handle a dagger. Routine operations [Table 2, roll 2= vacc suit] require that he learn to handle himself in a vacuum suit. Finally, [Table 2, roll 5= electronics] he takes an elementary course in electronics.

In his second term of service, the rapidly maturing Jamison finds himself faced with some danger [survival throw required is 5+, with a DM of +2 allowed for intelligence; he rolls 3, which is the lowest possible and still survive (3+2=5)] possibly a pirate raid, but does stay alive. His continued efficiency [promotion throw of 10+ with a DM of+1 for intelligence allowed; he rolls 12 (+1=13)] gains him his desired promotion to 2nd Officer. He signs up for a third term of service [reenlistment throw of 4+ required, no DMs, he throws 6] and is accepted. He is eligible for two skills this term (one for service, one for his promotion): He goes on a physical fitness kick [Table 1, roll 3= +1 endurance] and learns to better defend himself [Table 2, roll 4 =gun combat] using the small body pistol.

Jamison’s third term is rather uneventful [survival roll of 5+, DM of +2 for intelligence; he rolls 9 (+2=11)]. Unfortunately [promotion roll of 10+ required, DM of +1 for intelligence allowed; he rolls 8 (+1=9)] he fails the examination for 1st Officer by two points, and does not receive a promotion. Determined to succeed, he reenlists [reenlistment roll of 4+ required, no DMs; he rolls 10], He is eligible for one skill: [Table 2, roll 5= electronics] and studies electronics to increase his knowledge.

The fourth term begins easily enough [survival throw of 5+ required, DM of +2 for intelligence; he rolls 7 (+2=9)]. This time he passes the 1st Officer exam [promotion throw of 10+ required, DM +1 for intelligence; he throws 12 (+1=13)] easily, receiving his promotion and his master’s papers (including automatic pilot-1 expertise). Reenlisting again, he signs the papers to allow a fifth term of service [reenlistment roll of 4+ required, no DMs; he throws 10]. He is eligible for two skills this term (one for service and one for his promotion): he trains himself in the martial arts [Table 7, roll 5 = blade combat] choosing the cutlass and [Table 2, roll 4= gun combat] and, of all things, the submachine gun.

Beginning term of service number five, [survival roll of 5+ required, DM of +2 for intelligence; he rolls 7 (+2=9)], he stands for promotion [required promotion roll of 10+, DM +1 for intelligence; he rolls 11 (+1=12)] and is so promoted. At this point firmly entrenched in the merchant service [reenlistment throw of 4+ required, no DMs; he rolls 3] the service falls upon hard times, and in a cut-back, notifies Captain Jamison that it will no longer require his services after the end of this term. Because he has served five terms, he is eligible to retire (at CR 4000 per year). His service entitles him to two final skills: [Table 4, roll 5=pilot] He studies to improve his piloting skill, and [Table 3, roll 3= electronics] he continues his interest in electronics. Jamison now musters out of the service after 20 years of active duty. Because he is a Merchant Captain (of rank 5 on the scale of ranks), he is entitled to two extra rolls on the mustering out tables, in addition to the 5 rolls (for 5 terms of service) he has coming. He also is allowed, by virtue of his rank, +1 on all rolls on Table 1. Jamison elects to make one roll on Table 2 [he rolls 4= CR 20,000] and six rolls on Table 2 [he rolls 5 (+1=6) = +1 education; 6 (+1=7) = merchant ship; 2 (+1=3) = one middle passage; 6 (+1=7) = merchant ship; 6 (+1=7) =merchant ship; 6 (+1=7) = merchant ship]. His rolls indicate that Jamison has probably been participating in a long term purchase arrangement for the ship he has been serving on; at this point he has possession of the ship and 30 years of payments have already been made. Jamison is 38 years old, and is subject to 2 rounds of aging (one round should have been made at the end of term of service 4, but is instead being resolved at this time for simplicity; the other round is due to the end of term of service 5). He rolls twice (once for each round of aging being resolved) for strength reduction [saving throw is 8+; he rolls 12 and 9], twice for dexterity [saving throw of 7+; he rolls 7 and 6] and loses one point, reducing his dexterity from 8 to 7, and twice for endurance [saving throw 8+; he rolls 9 and 11].

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To recapitulate, Captain Jamison is now a 38 year old retired merchant captain, UPP 779C99. His skills are shown in the inset. He owns a Type A merchant ship (30 years old) and he owes 10 years (120 months) of payments before he will have clear title. He also has one middle passage, worth about CR 8,000. He has a re-tirement income of CR 4,000 yearly, and has already collected the first year’s bene-fit, which, when added to his other monies, gives him a balance of CR 24,000.

It might well be assumed that Jamison also has some slight resentment toward the Merchant service because he was denied reenlistment at the peak of his career.

Notice how much life Miller imagines for Jamison as the character makes his way through the character creation process. Notice how much attitude and point of view about himself and the world around him Miller invests in Jamison based off the rolls.

Jamison sets out to win his fortune in the world…

…and just barely manages to convince the captain to let him sign on…

While learning the ropes of his job and of dealing with people he learns to handle a dagger…

It might well be assumed that Jamison also has some slight resentment toward the Merchant service because he was denied reenlistment at the peak of his career…

…are only some of the examples. None of these qualities of character or bits of history are dictated by the numbers or written on the character sheet. But the Player had decided that for his character “dealing with people” requires a dagger!

A different person might come up with a completely different set of assumptions about who Jamison is, what his attitude toward life is, what the rolls meant, and what his history with the Merchant Marines was like.

This is the gift that a system life the original Traveller rules offers. It is less specific in nailing down the character on the character sheet… but thus much more open ended in terms of letting the Player inform the life of the character as his own imagination sees fit.

Empire of the Petal Throne: Observations about the Setting Material Within the Book

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Following up on the new print-on-demand version of Empire of the Petal Throne, here’s a link to a post Dyson Logos made about the game on his blog two and a half years ago after he bought the PDF, printed it, had it bound, and began reading it…

I’m also struck by the whole “too weird and detailed to be playable” thing. The material in the EPT book is definitely no weirder than anything Jodo has written (and there’s an RPG of that), and definitely less detailed than anything published for the Forgotten Realms. It feels incredibly accessible to me, and the very familiar yet slightly weird mechanics just make it more appealing.

I think the fear of its weirdness is an artifact of the era of its release. When it was released the common frame of reference was Conan and Middle Earth and everyone was fairly comfortable with the tech level and cultural framework of those settings and all you had to do was infer various things and the rest was handled by the mass knowledge base. This setting was different. And different is scary.

EPT Statue

Today, we have tons of “different” settings and games out there. If we can embrace transhumanist themes in our sci-fi and play games that cross over into lucid dreaming and fairy tales on a regular basis, we can definitely cope with a bit of alien detail like Tékumel.

The presentation in the 1975 EPT is far from dense. It lays out a foundation sketch of the setting that is way less dense than say the descriptions of the various nations and regions in the Forgotten Realms 3e hardcover.

If anything, it’s this sketchiness that I like. It (like the best settings I’ve read) gives you enough information to run on and to make up your own games from without burying you in data.

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The significance of this for this blog is that the Empire of the Petal Throne gives a Referee and players an entry point into a strange and exotic world… but doesn’t bury them under a ton of material as if they’re getting their Ph. D. in the study of some nonexistent world.

Instead, there is enough to inspire the Referee and Players, to send them off in an unexpected direction that they never would have come up with on their own, not to master the fictional details of the world but to expand them from their own imagination and invention.