Over at Ancient Faith in the Far Future, Robert Weaver has an excellent post on Book 2 Starship Combat. The focus of the post is how the starship combat system can be focused on RPG play, not tactical play.
He discusses several house rules he incorporates into the system, but the key takeaway is this:
All of these decisions are what keeps Bk2 ship combat a roleplaying game. Yes, the game involves die rolling, but the decisions about what to roll for are based upon the PC’s motivations, goals and skills.
Yes! I agree with all of this and more!
Is the crew carrying a cargo they can’t afford to give up? Do the have credits to burn for repairs? Or is one more hit going to leave them dry-docked for months upon months as they try to scrounge up the Credits to get the ship operational again? Are they trying to jump out of system — or are they traveling in system and can’t afford to be followed to the planet?
All of these situational and in-fiction elements will help determine what decisions the characters will make. As you point out, the purpose of the system isn’t to play a tactical game. It is to put pressure on the resources (immediate and long terms) and the goals (immediate and long term) of the PCs (and the Players), forcing decisions with consequences that can be both seen and unseen.
It’s a terrific post, and on well worth reading.
A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE 1977 and 1981 RULES
A note about difference in the 1977 and 1981 rules. Weaver talks about the Critical Hit table and house-ruling it so that that he takes the Critical Hit table out of combat.
Bk2 ships are resilient; even a small ship can take a half dozen or more hits and live to fly another day. A ship wins in space combat by staying operational longer than their opponent. It is possible to outrun another ship, but it takes a long time, unless a ship gets crippled. There are several ways to cripple a ship, and none of them are done with ‘one lucky shot’. Yes, The Traveller Book includes a critical hit table, but I prefer not to use it because of the “oops you’re all dead” Explode result.
This point of view makes so much sense that on a whim I went back and checked the 1977 edition of Book 2. It turns out the original edition of the rules doesn’t have Critical Hit rules for space combat.
An interesting and important difference, I think. This change in the rules that moves the game from its RPG focus (which Weaver is focused on) toward the wargame/boardgame focus that took hold of Classic Traveller as the years passed. After all, in an RPG you don’t want every PC getting blown to smithereens on a failed crit roll during combat. But if you’re playing out fleet engagements as a wargame, where destroying the opponent’s ships one by one is the goal, it makes perfect sense.
The question to ask is: What kind of starship combat do you need to play the kind of game you are playing?
STARSHIP COMBAT FOR PLAYER CHARACTERS, NOT BOARDGAMES PLAY
Now, Weaver’s post might not align with everyone’s focus for Traveller. But it certainly aligns with mine.
Over the last few years, digging into the rules, I’ve made some decisions about what Traveller is going to be to me. (And let’s keep in mind: Traveller is many different things to many different people. I’m talking about my preferences. I’m not trying to convince anyone to agree with them.)
Two and a half years ago, when I was digging up old GDW books and reading through them, I picked up Striker, I picked up Power Projection. I had dreams of going off into all sorts of directions and mixing and matching the RPG elements that Books 1-3 focused on with all the war-game elements GDW added to the game over time.
However, at some point I asked myself: Do I need to do all this to have fun playing Traveller as an RPG with my friends on Monday night? Should I be doing all this?
In Starvation Cheap the military/mercenary campaign supplement for Stars Without Numbers, Kevin Crawford provides a clever system for determining the results of a military conflict, but not a system for playing it all through. He writes:
The mass combat system provided here is intended to be a basic, general system for fueling the progress of a military campaign. It’s not meant to provide complex decisions for the players or especially reward cunning strategic play. This is an intentional simplicity due to certain problems that tend to come up regularly in a military-oriented campaign.
The most significant problem is that any given group of players is going to have notably different degrees of skill and interest in playing a war game. If the mass combat system you use particularly rewards system mastery, the GM is going to have to work to master that system if they’re not going to be overwhelmed by players who do study up on the rules. This makes an already-demanding job harder, as the GM has to be good at playing the war game if they’re to present an adequate challenge to the players. Perhaps even worse, the GM might be too good at the game, overwhelming players who just don’t have the knack or the interest in focusing on strategic-level war games.
I decided Crawford had a point. I had already reached a point where I had to decide how much work I was going to put into gaming sessions beyond simply creating a cool setting and specific situations for my players to play through. Leaving aside mastering the rules, dealing with miniatures and terrain, teaching the players the rules, having maybe practice play before we played so they wouldn’t feel caught off guard with starting a whole new game… what would the payoff actually be?
I realized I didn’t need all of that. What I wanted from Traveller play was enough tension and decision making to engage the Players on behalf of their PCs as to keep them invested, creating new problems, and drive them toward new opportunities.
If we reached a point where were playing an entirely new game which demanded they master a whole new set of complex thinking to handle the fate of their PCs and their investments, I was probably off the mark.
This isn’t to say such play wouldn’t be perfect for other people. I’m talking about my own tastes. As several of have noted, Traveller started as para-military play, with a small group armed with readily available weapons, and became more and more militarized over time. But that doesn’t mean you have to play the game the way it became. I decided to focus more and more on the original roots of play.
Thus, if the PCs find themselves in a military operation, I need only focus on the PCs. The battle itself is a backdrop that, as so often is the case, the PCs will have little control over. It is part of the environment that will provide threats and opportunities for the PCs.
Note that The Battles chapter of Book 4: Mercenary addresses this issue specifically. Note as well that the Battle System of King Arthur Pendragon has always held this point of view. See also the Battles rules from Red and Pleasant Land, which also focus on the Player Characters, using the battle around the PCs to influence the situations the PCs are facing.
What I love about Weaver’s post is it nails the Traveller Book 2 space combat system into this more PC-focused tradition as well.
For example, Weaver suggests dropping and replacing with the Range Band system found in Starter Traveller.
Now, there are reasons for using the Vector system found in Traveller Book 2.In the full vector system, a ship can thrust laterally to run missiles out of fuel (or just to dodge them if the ship’s thrust is high enough). That ability to thrust laterally makes flanking maneuvers very important, if difficult to execute correctly. After all, thrusting directly into one set of missiles is counter-productive.Moreover, playing on an open surface with miniatures and planetary templates allows all sorts of elements of terrain to come into play: planetary gravity, having goals to reach (starports, damaged ships, and so forth). And, let’s face it, playing with miniatures and vectors is cool.
But ultimately the question has to be asked: How much of this is going to help a PC-focused, RPG campaign?
Is it better to handle some of the above issues abstractly? I would say yes, for all the reasons listed in Weaver’s post and the paragraphs above.
Yes, perhaps one day during my campaign, after everyone has all the other elements of starship combat under their belts, we’d break out some miniatures on a big table. But the key is, what is the focus of play? And then, per the advice of the early RPGs like OD&D and original Traveller, making the game your own.
Weaver’s approach gives me space combat (yay!) with reduced complexity (yay!) with choices for the Players to make on behalf of their PCs (yay!) with short-term and long-term consequences for their resources, goals, and agendas (yay!). By shifting the rules in this way, one is not losing the game of Traveller but shaping in the fashion that some people (at least me) are interested in using the game.