The Sandbox vs the Railroad… or Spontaneous Story Creation vs. Pre-Plotted Story

Elsewhere I’ve talked about the casual, improvisational nature of early Traveller play, the value of random rolls and random encounters in Old School play, and what we mean by “encounters” in Old School play.

I’ve also touched on how the nature of modules and adventure design changed from the early days of the hobby to what publishers produces in the 1990s. (In short, adventures were once more situational and lightly sketched (as in the early Classic Traveller Adventures) and later became more focused on pre-plotted stories (The Traveller Adventure, the Dragonlance modules). In the first random rolls and random encounters are the Referee’s friend because they offer more opportunity for the Players to make choices and create more adventure material on the fly. In the second they random encounters are a problem because they distract players from “what the story is supposed to be.”

Someone pointed me to this lovely video which does a bang-up job of giving examples of two different kinds of play. In one campaign found as the Referee responses to the interests and desires of the Players and makes up material as needed. In the other the Referee knows exactly how he wants things to go and forces the Players along certain paths to make sure the story is awesome.

I really think it is worth a look…

TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–An Invitation to Invention


Over at Facebook Traveller Group, someone linked to my post “TRAVELLER and ‘Hard Science Fiction’–I don’t think so…

As it also does, the post started a conversation about the nature of science and science fiction in Traveller play.

Someone pointed out that the title seemed to imply that I was against Hard SF in someone’s Traveller campaign. This is not the case at all.

I wrote the post as an argument against the assumption that Traveller, by definition, is built with the diamond hardness that would please engineers who want their SF real-real-real.

I pointed out the stories that had inspired Marc Miller to create the game in the first place. If you read the tales from Poul Anderson, Jack Vance, E.C. Tubb, and many others, you’ll find that while there is a patina of hard SF to make the stories grounded, they are, first and foremost, adventure stories in a pulp-SF tradition.

The primary concern of these stories is a rousing yarn, with the SF elements there to create complication and drama for the protagonists. The SF elements are consistent within the story, allowing the protagonists to solve problems to their own advantage.

But if you tried to learn something about actual science from these tales you’d be in big trouble. And not only because the science has changed from 40 years ago. Even for their time most of the science in the tales ranged from speculative at best to nonsensical at the other end. I won’t say “worst” at the other end, because the point of the tales wasn’t to teach science. The wild and wooly nature of the SF details helped build colorful environment and problems for the protagonists–which means the SF details were great across the board.

For the most part, these tales use far-flung space elements, strange aliens, and exotic environments to create an environment where frontiers, bold action, and spectacular adventures have enough room to take place. That they possess an element of science to justify the wonders they present does not make them scientific.

But to be clear: I want people to play the kind of game that people want to be playing at their tables. If someone really wants to drill down in the contemporary scientific principles and theories to build the RPG setting more power to them.

That’s why I started the TRAVELLER: Out of the Box series, after all. Two years ago, when I went online to ask questions about Classic Traveller I was continuously told, “That’s not how The Third Imperium works,” or “The trade rules in Classic Traveller are broken, because the GDP of a world with a Population 9 would produce more ships than the system allows…” I decided to go back and re-read the original three Traveller Books and see if there was a good game in there or not. Because so many people seemed to think the game was “broken” and kept having to be fixed.

So, this series has always been a pushback who assume that because the rules of Traveller don’t make sense because the rules in Books 1-3 don’t make the kind of setting they want. Instead, I looked at the rules and said, “What kind of setting does this produce?”

And not surprisingly, it produced and encouraged the kinds of settings found in the pulp-SF stories that inspired Marc Miller to write the game.

Still, if one read the post I linked to above without context, one might assume I was telling people they could not or should not play Traveller with one of the dials turned all the way to “HARD SF.” And when asked about this on that Facebook thread, I replied:

I wrote: “If I were to retitle it now, it might be: TRAVELLER: Hard SF — sometimes, sometimes not”

And then Cam Kirmser asked: “What is an example of ‘sometimes not.'”

I replied to Kirmser, “I will use a title you mentioned above: Ringworld.”

Kirmser had written:

Ringworld comes close to smacking of Science Fantasy. Some species are so bloody advanced their tech seems magical. But, even those species have limitations that bring them back into the realm of hard SciFi. Yes, a GP hull is impervious to anything – well, except antimatter – because it’s one big molecule. The property is rather ‘soft,’ but the explanation, though out there, returns it to ‘hard.’

But, the CoDominum books – Falkenberg’s Legion books, the Sparta books, Mote – seem to have been written from a Traveller campaign. I mean, take out the instantaneous Jump, replace it with a week’s time in Jump space, add in some grav plates and you’ve almost got textbook Traveller, even to the dispersed empire based upon the remains of an earlier, greater society aspect.

I guess it might be just me, but I see Pournelle’s Future History as the glove that fits Traveller’s hand.

I replied:

I absolutely believe that see Pournelle’s Future History as the glove that fits Traveller’s hand… if one looks at the text of Books 1-3 a certain way.

The point I would add is *all those blank rows at the bottom of the Tech Level chart*!

In my view, those blank rows are there to be filled in by the Referee as he wishes. One you start filling those in, you can easily make Ringworld a possibility.

And it was assumed the Referee might well do that. That’s why all those blank rows are there. Not that a Referee had to! That’s my point.

In fact, I think this is one of the major splits in how one approaches the original rules of Traveller in creating a setting:

1. The items, tech, and concepts in Books 1-3 are what the Referee are the building blocks of any Traveller setting.

2. The items, tech, and concepts in Books 1-3 are a baseline for setting for the PCs to be from a fairly conservative culture, and the Referee adds extraordinary concepts as he wishes, per the blank rows at the bottom of the Tech Level chart. Those blank rows are an *invitation* to the Referee to add more!

Keep in mind as well that in Book 2, in the experience section, we find this:

“Such methods could include RNA intelligence or education implants, surgical alteration, military or mercenary training, and other systems. Alternatives to the above methods must be administered by the referee.”

There are a lot of ideas packed into the first sentence that the rules never address in any way. And the second sentence says, “And more!”

So, for me, “…sometimes not…” is when the Referee takes advantage of any SF ideas and concepts that he wants to pursue and adds them at the bottom of the Tech Level chart to make things unexpected, strange, alien, and beyond the baseline scope of ideas, tech, and concepts found in Books 1-3.

As an example, Ringworld. There is no reason the Referee couldn’t use Ringworld as a setting using the oringal Traveller rules, having the PCs land on it and explore it.

The bottom 25% of the Tech Index table found in Book 3:


I think the point I made about the blank rows at the bottom of the Traveller Tech Level chart is an important one. And I think it speaks to a great division in how people see the game and approach making settings in the game.

For some people what is Traveller Books 1-3 is where the science starts and ends for a Traveller campaign. For others of us what is in Traveller Books 1-3 is just the beginning…

King Arthur Pendragon 1st Edition–Currently Free on DriveThruRPG


As I’ve noted elsewhere King Arthur Pendragon is one of my favorite roleplaying games ever. I first encountered it in the 3rd edition and was blown away by the mechanics, the layout, and Lisa Free’s gorgeous art.

James Maliszewski wrote a lovely tribute to the 1st edition back in 2010. And lo and behold, DriveThruRPG currently has a PDF of the 1st edition available for FREE until January 31st, 2017. All the contents of the original game are included in a single PDF.

While the editions haven’t changed that much over the years (apart from the 4th edition which added magic and expanded the “classes” of characters from knights to many other folks) I’m curious to see how the original version of the game reads.

Below is the copy from the DriveThruRPG page:

Chivalric Roleplaying in Arthur’s Britain.

Relive the glory of King Arthur’s court. Uphold the chivalric ideals of fair play, courage, honesty, and justice as your caliant knight-character undertakes perilous quests and risks monstrous dangers in legendary Britain. He’ll smite bloodthirsty giants and crush treacherous invaders for King Arthur and his own glory.

To play the Pendragon roleplaying game, you create and take on the role of squite, knight, or noble of the realm. Armed and armored, you overcome life and death struggles, impossible frustration, and ruthless enemies to join the Fellowship of the Round Table

The gamemaster leads the other players in interpreting the Pendragon rules and is central in bringing the adventures to l ife. He commands the magic of Merlin and Morgan le Fay, the actions of King Arthut and Queen Guenever, and the schemes of Mordred and Agravaine.

Game Features:

Roleplaying – innovative game mechanics awaken passionate love, hate, and loyalty in your characters, leading them to acts of mercy, cruelty, lust, piety, valor, and cowardice.

Campaign Play – customs, manners, and weapons change during teh phases of Arthur’s long reign. Over these years your character-knight begets a family whose reputation depends on the glory he achieves. He passes his hard-won inheritance and grudges to his sons. Up to four generations of knights will live and die during Arthur’s reign.

Game System – Easily remembered, simple-to-play mechanics feature a single die roll to determine combat, to settle personality encounters, and to resolve skill use.

Character Generation – create a squire, knight, noble, or fair damsel, of Roman Saxon, Cymric, Pictish, or Irish heritage. Select between the Christian, Wotonic, or pagan religions.

Background – Includes a 22″ by 30″ map of Britain complete with kingdoms, cities, castles, keeps, forests, Roman roads, abbeys, rivers, mountains, fortified walls, and battle sites. A bestiary of natural and mythical creatures includes avancs, barguests, dwarfs, elves, giants, kelpies, spriggans, unicorns, yales, and the Questing Beast among many others. You are provided character statistics for major personalities such as Arthur, Guenever, and Lancelot. Also enclosed are lesser-knowns such as Balin le Sauvage, Breuse sans Pitie, Saint Cadoc, King Mark, Nimue, Percivale and Ulfius. A chronology includes wars, adventures, customs, campaigh escalation, and characters of note. An extensive bibliography provides further sources of information, all to support campaign play.

The Game of Quest, Romance & Adventure

Der Entdecker: An alternate-reality sailing ship found by the Player Characters in my Lamentations of the Flame Princess campaign


My game is on hiatus right now, allowing me time to sort through some bookkeeping and prep for further adventures.

As noted previously, my players tracked down a sailing ship that can travel between alternate earths. Here’s a writeup for the Players, using the rules from Rules & Magic and the ACKS Guns of War.

I built the sheet above to hand the players so they’ll have a sense of ownership of this piece of equipment. They’ll be tracking supplies and more.

When we left off they had used the ship for the first time, using the ship’s wheel to steer a course for an alternate world where two arch-mages fight a decades long battle and the the peaceful Qelong Valley has been shattered by the fallout.

TRAVELLER: Out of the Box-An Approach to Refereeing and Throws in Original Traveller (Part I)

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This is kind of esoteric, and I’m not quite sure how to articulate this in a concise way. For some of you this might be stone-cold obvious. For others it might seem like the dumbest thing ever.

But here we go:

I was chatting with some friends online about how I’m beginning to see how Refereeing Traveller (and original D&D) required a different kind of approach than that used by roleplaying games that came after it.

I’ve tried several times to clean top the ideas contained below. But I have failed. So I’m gong to post the original comments in their raw form. They might be of interest to some, but not to others!

I wrote the following:


I’ve discussed on one of these threads the idea of Refereeing I work with taken from Free Kriegsspiel and Braunstien… That the Referee is the impartial adjudicator of events, making decisions sometimes without even referring to rules.

Rolls are made when the Referee is uncertain, but the idea really is a REFEREE. He provides opportunities and obstacles to the Players, sits back, lets them make decisions and take actions, and then says, “Ummm…. here’s the call.”

It goes without saying that this entire system of play is dependent on the Players TRUSTING the Referee. Whether this is a GOOD idea, is beyond the scope of these posts. But that’s what we’re talking about.

So… skill rolls in Traveller and skill rolls in other games, and rolls in general.

It occurred to me that given the above framework, I really do, when I roll, hand off the power of fate to the oracles. I really have no agenda. I’m just looking to see what happens along with the Players.

It is an impartial act to find out what happened so we might find out what the Player Characters do next.

An Implication for Traveller Throws:

Keep in mind that I don’t think Classic Traveller has a Skill System. It has a Throw system (throw 2D6, equal or beat a number, add DMs from a variety of sources (skills, characteristics, and circumstances). Not everything Throw has a Skill DM. THAT IS IMPORTANT!

Because it we have a system for Referee saying, “I don’t know what’s going to happen here. Roll these 2D6 and we’ll find out what happened.” All sorts of modifiers can come into play depending on what the roll is about. It is a universal system that looks like it has not system! (Every later edition of Traveller has a skill system, tying all rolls to skills.)

So, I’m thinking about this, and thinking about how I see this as different than I see, let’s say, skills in Cyberpunk 2020. (I’m using CP2020 as an example, but really it’s a stand in for all RPGs after 1980, and some before 1980.)

Because in CP2020 the roll doesn’t seem impartial at all. As a Player, that skill roll is my skill roll. If I hit it, it’s not because we’re turning to the oracles to find out what happened. It’s because my guy was That Fucking Awesome.

The distinction I am trying to express is strange and subtle. I don’t even have words to describe it yet.

In the case of Traveller we are making an impartial roll to discover a result that my PC’s skill can influence. In all later RPG skill systems, the roll is about my skill.

That is all. Like, I don’t know where to go with that, exactly. But I do know this shift in understanding (clearly seeing what I’ve been thinking about the Traveller rules) makes perfect sense to me.

And I don’t see it squaring with other RPGs. (But I might be missing something. Like I said, it’s all new and kind of weird.)

This ties into the early RPG ideas where the Referee made all or many of the rolls. Maybe it wasn’t because he was fudging, but because the rolls weren’t about the Players making the roll or about “The Characters succeeding or failing.”

Maybe because it was part and parcel of the impartial nature of the revelation of events, offering a new set of obstacles and opportunities for the Players to deal with.

I think communicating this idea is important for how I’d like to play Traveller.

We could play the Lamentations of the Flame Princess I’m running the same way, with an understanding the hiding in shadows is not about whether “You are good enough to hide in shadow” but about “Whether you are seen.” There’s a distinction here, right? It is using the dice in completely different ways. The effect is the same, perhaps, but it is a distinctly different point of view about how one approaches the dice and the game. And, in turn, I think this shift changes a great deal about how one sees play working out. It really reinforces the nature of the Referee as impartial judge, the dice as oracles, and the rolls not as “skill rolls” but as impartial tools to determine outcomes. The point of the roll is not to see “How well the character did,” but to see what happened when the character did something, which in turn leads to the character having to do the next thing, based on the outcome of the roll.

But I also think I might melt the brains of people used to thinking along lines built out during the last 35 years of the hobby.

My friend Jesse then commented:

I’m reminded of a discussion I had with Raggi. A situation came up in my D&D 5e that involved the players trying to turn a congregation against their spiritual leader using illusions and other magic. It was a pretty good idea. I had the player who had concocted the play make a Deception skill check.

But it got me thinking. How do you adjudicate that in LotFP? I know Raggi is against using stat resolution (i.e. roll d20 get under CHA). It bugged me so much I just decided to ask him.

He told me that he’d just make an NPC reaction roll. And at first I thought, “Ah! Okay makes sense.”

But the longer I thought about it the more it bugged me because a flat NPC reaction roll in no way takes into account who the characters ARE.

And I think that ties into what you were saying. “Throws” center the situation as a whole. Stuff is happening. Could go lots of ways. We throw to see what branch we go down. Skills center the characters. This one is better at X and that one is better at Y.

And I think that represents the drift over time. We start out with a war game. Players are units. It’s a pretty birds eye view. Hell we have a “Caller” who speaks for everyone. But over time, people start wanting who there character *is* to matter more and more.

And I replied to Jesse:

And what I would add to Raggi’s note is a DM for the Awesomeness of the Magic. A Reaction +3 … or whatever … based, as you say, off the situation at hand, with the roll to determine where we go next.

You wrote: “But over time, people start wanting who there character is to matter more and more.”

Exactly… because this is also the shift away from Player focused play, to Character focused play. (“Player Skill, Not Character Abilities” in the parlance of the “Quick Primer for Old School Gaming.”)


That was the exchange. What follows below are a notes for context.

I’ve discussed before how I see Refereeing Traveller in the context of how Referees work when playing Free Kriegsspiel (a Referee driven war game).

Here is the passage on Free Kriegsspiel from the Wikipedia entry on Kriegsspiel:

“Free” Kriegsspiel

Kriegsspiel in its original form was not particularly popular among the Prussian officer corps. The rules were cumbersome and games took much longer than the battles that they were supposed to represent. It was not until 1876 that General Julius von Verdy du Vernois had the idea of placing more power in the hands of the gamemaster in order to speed up the game and reduce the number of rules. von Verdy’s “Free” Kriegsspiel did away with many of the movement and combat rules in order to save time, giving the duty of deciding the effects of orders and combat to the gamemaster. This allowed players to play a game in real time, giving the players a better feel for the tension of actual combat. To retain military accuracy, von Verdy emphasized the necessity of using military experts as gamemasters. The new “Free” Kriegsspiel soon gained more popularity than its predecessor (now known as “Strict” Kriegsspiel”); The Prussian (later German) General Staff used it both for its internal exercises and as a training tool.

In my research into the gaming culture and kinds of games surrounding the creation of Roleplaying Games in the 1970s I also looked and Braunstiena Referee driven precursor to Dungeons & Dragons.


Barons of Braunstein is a historical role-playing game, but one incorporating ideas and inspiration from the original Braunstein by David Wesley in the 1960s. (You can see the character sheet for the game above. I want you to really pay attention to how much information isn’t on that character sheet.)

The following sample character demonstrates what a finished hero might look like:

NAME: Mite
SEX: female
LITERACY: illiterate (+2 LUCK)
LUCK: 12
SOCIAL CLASS: commoner
BACKGROUND: Mite is a young street urchin with no knowledge of her birth name. Although willing to steal, she is protective of the weak and helpless.
EQUIPMENT: backpack, bedroll, knife, picks and tools, rations

Here is the important part: the Referee is supposed to use those few scattered elements to decide on the fly what the character can and cannot do in different circumstances.

For example, there are three “Social Classes” in Barons of Braunstien: Clergy, Commoners, and Nobles. Based on those three classes alone, the Judge must often decide what sort of skills or abilities a character might possess, what he might be able to do or not do at all, how difficult certain acts might be, and so on.

Here is the passage from the rules of Barons of Braunstien about “Doing Things”:


Some actions are easy. The player does not roll dice because their character is automatically successful. Other things are simply impossible and never succeed under any circumstances, although judges can always intervene (a matter of common sense and good judgment). Everything else requires the roll of 2d6, based on conditions:

Simple  —  ordinary walking/talking 
Easy  7 or better  elementary/little interference 
Moderate  9 or better  harder/distractions present 
Difficult  12+  daunting/dangerous conditions 

Notice that it is up to the Judge (the Referee) to decide if an action is automatic, impossible, or possible but requiring a roll. Note, too, the Judge decides what the difficulty will be. These matters will be influenced by  who the character is (background, history, social class and so on, as originally described by the Player).

Someone who is “willing to steal” (as in the example above) might have an easier time picking a pocket than a parish priest. It is up to the Judge to decide how difficult it might be for either the street urchin or the parish priest to pick a pocket based on nothing more than his own common sense and interpretation of the world.

One might say that this kind of rules system is kind of loosey-goosey! YES! And I suggest this sort of loosey-goosiness was part and parcel, and expectation, of playing both original Dungeons & Dragons and original Traveller.

I bring all this up because I believe if one reads the rules for original Dungeons & Dragons or original Traveller and it seems they are “broken,” “incomplete,” or “need to be fixed” it is because the person reading them is lacking the context of how the Referee worked in games like Free Kriegsspiel or Braunstien. (And we all know how much effort has been spent trying to “fix” the “Task System” for Classic Traveller over the years!)

This doesn’t mean this method of play is better, or should be played at your table. (Current RPG design certainly works to avoid this kind of play!) But it is a viable method of play.

Moreover, I believe it is an excellent approach for playing Original Traveller. In the next post I’ll talk about the practical applications of this point of view when Refereeing and playing Traveller.

Another Great Post About Skills in Original Traveller


Robert Weaver follows up this terrific post at Den of the Lizard King about Traveller skills with one of his own over at Ancient Faith in the Far Future.

A sample:

In Traveller power comes from player ingenuity, and an understanding of how the Traveller universe works.  Traveller does not provide the power fantasy of easily overcoming enormous obstacles and defeating large & powerful enemies.

Let’s face it. When you compare a ‘competent’ Traveller character to a character from most other RPGs, especially D&D in its later editions, the Traveller comes off looking, well, lame.

Yes, we know that my 4-term Marine with UPP 9998A8 and Cbt. Rifleman-3 is a tough hombre in a fight, but even so he can still get capped by a thug with an auto-pistol. A Barsoomian White Ape will make dinner out of him quickly, unless the PC is lucky and the player is smart…

What is to be done about this? I say: Nothing. Nothing at all. Let Classic Traveller be what it is.

Acknowledge up front that Traveller is not a video game, or an adolescent power fantasy. What it might be is an adult power fantasy. Let me explain…

Read the rest! It’s good! I like where he lands.

Robert’s view echoes my own. I believe Traveller characters are straight-forward and simple, like the conservative technology they carry into the distant worlds at the edge of civilization, in order to showcase the wonders the Referee brings to bear.

If everyone is already a superhero, then the Players have little to respond to in terms of awe when they meet something extraordinary. But if the Player Characters encounter aliens and technology that are beyond their understanding, then the creations of the Referee are puzzles and wonders to sort out. If the aliens and technology present dangers that are true threat to the Player Characters then the Players will have to work hard in clever ways to keep their characters alive.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess Spell Booklets for Clerics and Magic-Users, Levels 1 & 2


Jeff Rients notes:

One of my few gripes with the Lamentations of the Flame Princess Rules & Magic book is the spell section.  I hate, hate, hate getting all the spells as a single long alphabetical list.  For too long my neural pathways have been charred into a configuration based upon the organization of spells by class and level.

And frankly, I think that the old way of organizing spells was a lot more friendly for newbies.  Imagine playing a cleric for the first time and needing to search through 200 spells to find the ten you have to choose from.

I concur.

A year ago, when I started my LotFP campaign, I thought the same thing. I made spell list pamphlets for my LotFP Players, ready to be printed out as little pamphlets.

Include both 1st and 2nd Level spells. Since Player Characters won’t need 3rd Level Spells until 5th Level, I knew this would mean they’d be useful for several months of play!

LofFP M-U Spell Booklet, Lvl 1&2

LotFP Cleric Spell Booklet Lvl 1&2

They are formatted as A5 pages, but they’ll easily squeeze into a 5.5″x8.5″ sheet for booklet printing.