TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–Marc Miller Talks about the Development of Traveller

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E.T. Smith was at the recent GaryCon and had an opportunity to talk to Marc Miller during a quiet Q&A with a few other attendees.

He begins:

Friday morning at Gary Con IX, I attended a seminar hosted by Marc Miller, lead creator of Traveller. It turned out to be a modest affair, fewer than ten people, so Marc had us all pull in close and provided rare opportunity to ask him direct questions. In particular, since I’ve been reading the “Out of the Box” series on Tales to Astound, I was curious about the evolution of Traveller from a generic sandbox generator to a game specifically about the Third Imperium setting, and was able to put the matter to him directly a couple times.

There are plenty of interesting nuggets scattered through the post, so if you’re interested in Traveller and its history I would definitely check it out.

I found this passage interesting in particular:

Buyers demand expansions they’ll never use, so designing for the market is not the same thing as designing for actual play. “They want thirty pages of combat rules, but will never run more than a brawl using five of them.”

I suppose part of the love I have found for OSR style play in recent years is based on the notion that I want as few rules as possible, and I’ll add more later if  need them. My focus is on actual play… not buying more material.

TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–The Rules are Not Your Friend

Petra-Spaceport-OutlanderThere is no comfort to be had in the Basic Traveller rules as written.

For years people have pointed out that making a profit with a freight hauler in Traveller is hard if not impossible. They claim the rules are broken since people should be able to regularly and safely make a profit.

Here’s a thought: What if that isn’t true? What if given the setting implied by the rules found int Books 1-3 making a profit is supposed to be very hard, if not impossible? What would happen then?

Lots of things!

For example, a crew of Player Characters might end up with a ship. The ship might have a mortgage. There are rules for paying the mortgage. But if the crew isn’t making a profit, they can’t pay that mortgage. Does this mean the rules for trade are broken?

Not if we remember that this passage has been part of the game since 1977:

Skipping: Most starships are purchased against a mortgage or loan, and the monthly payments required against the multi-million credit debt are staggering. The owner or captain may decide to steal the ship himself instead of remaining under that load. Passengers have no way themselves of determining if a specific ship is in such a status. The referee should throw 12 exactly to determine that a commercial ship is of this type.

Ships which have skipped are subject to repossession attempts if they are detected by the authorities or by collection agencies. Such attempts may range from the formal service of papers through legal injunctions to armed boarding parties. A repossession attempt will occur under the following conditions: On each world landing, throw 12+ to avoid such an attempt, apply a DM of +1 per 5 hexes distance from the ship’s home planet, to a maximum of +9. If the ship has called on the same world twice within the last two months, apply a DM of –2. This procedure also applies to ships owned by player characters who have skipped.

See, the underlying assumption of the Basic Traveller rules is that things go wrong. The rules for skipping make this assumption explicit. Your business venture as a tramp freighter crew might well go south. Why else have rules devoted to skipping out on your mortgage?

But this is only part of the pain the rules offer.

The rules of Books 1-3 dwell on combat, animal encounters, run-ins with the law, hijackings, pirates, hostile encounters in space and on planets, ship holds that don’t fill up, jump drive failure because of being unable to find refined fuel, and the fact that many worlds lack the parts or technology to repair anything from firearms to starships.

This doesn’t mean that any given setting has to be like this. Everyone should make the setting they want. If you want a setting where everything is clean and shiny, refined fuel is plentiful, and ever ship leaves port with a full cargo hold… go for it!

But the implied setting found in the actual rules of original Traveller assumes that things fail, that things go bad, and that things are always on the cusp of turning into the next disaster.

The implied setting of play assumes that travellers deal with trouble regularly. Traveller by definition put themselves in harms way, go to extraordinary places, and live lives most people would not risk. The rules make this clear.

When it comes to starship economics, the rules assume play will take place in a patch of space defined by depressed population levels and worlds with sub-starship technology. Profit margins will be narrow if not nonexistent. All of this is by design.

So, yes… if the crew of a ship can make their mortgage payments that’s great. It will be one less source of trouble if they don’t have people after them to repossess their ship. On the other hand, the rules take the time to explain how one bolts from the responsibility of paying that mortgage. The rules then explain how one can get into trouble for this choice and avoid that same trouble.

The soil of the Basic Traveller rules is science-fiction adventure fiction. The rules of the game are designed to create stress, conflict, and trouble. This helps drive the player characters to bold choices. It means taking high risk/high reward jobs. It means coming up with bold schemes to get contracts or find treasures. It means doing deeds for powerful patrons to get hold of better resources. The PCs might even skip the mortgage payments or become pirates. This is all part and parcel of the implied environment of the game fostered by the rules themselves.

No interpretation of the rules demands that trade in the implied section of space created by the rules works efficiently. In fact, if one looks at the expectations of the rules one finds the opposite.



Please note there is a discussion of these ideas taking place in the comments. Make sure to check them out. The points you want to make might already be under discussion!

TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–Making a Character, Playing to Find Out

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Obviously, it is possible for a player to generate a character with seemingly unsatisfactory values; nevertheless, each player should use his character as generated.
–Traveller Book 1

I think the Classic Traveller character creation system does a lot of other neat tricks that I discuss in this post. (It teaches the mechanics of the game (the 2D6 bell curve, DMs for rolls based on characteristics, the honest risk of death (which is how I play) in pursuit of what you want, the basics of suboptimal choices (“Do I call it quits after one term? Or risk death?”) which in many ways is baked into the implied setting, working with the hand you are dealt (choosing the career based on potential characteristic DMs.)

And let us remember as well, it doesn’t happen that often. Odds are good (especially with DMs) that characters will make it alive through terms. The risk is there.

But for me, just as important, is that the roleplaying begins here. In the rules rolling up those six characteristics is called “Initial Character Generation.” Those six die rolls are the character creation process. Once you have those six characteristics written down on a scrap of paper the game begins.

Notice the phrasing here from Book 1 (emphasis added):

A newly generated character is singularly unequipped to deal with the adventuring world, having neither the expertise nor the experience necessary for the active life. In order to acquire some experience, it is possible to enlist in a service.

The rules make it clear that entering a service is, in fact, optional. You could. You might not. Your choice in these matters is part of play. Character creation is already over. You are playing right now.

Of course you’re going to try to get into a service . You want those skills.* And so you try to enter a service. But still, it is a choice. Your character’s life is underway. His life of risk has started. We are learning who is he as we play out his life.

And this is the fascinating thing. As we do this process, we build a character.

Is my guy the kind of guy who chose to leave after two terms? Got kicked out? Pushed his luck and went for a fourth or fifth term voluntarily? Wanted to get out but got drafted?

These questions, along with “Why did my guy never get promoted?” “What the hell happened during his service to make him so skilled in Blade combat?” and more, along the with answers the Player creates, add up to define character even before “play” begins. (My thesis is play begins the minute you pick up the blank character sheet, btw. Make of that what you want.)

But the biggest of these questions is the relationship the character had with a dangerous career. Why did he stay? For how long? Why? Why did he get out?

Given that all of the original Traveller characters would be characters heading off onto worlds remote from the centralized government they once served, their relationship with risk, danger, and death is part and parcel to getting a hold on them.

For all the reasons listed above, I love the Classic Traveller character system and its risk of death.


Significantly, the Classic Traveller character generation system really isn’t set up for the Player who wants a specific kind of character type. The system is designed more about the “play the cards your dealt” in which the Player rolls characteristics and then makes decisions about how much he’s willing to risk to get an soldier from the Army (if that’s what he wants) even though he’s got characteristics that are better suited for the Merchant Marines.

The game wasn’t designed for the Player to always get what he wants. You make your six characteristic rolls and then you decide where his best odds are in a system full of suboptimal choices. (A character might have better odds of survival in one career, but his odds of promotion will be lower; while his odds of promotion might be better in another career, but the odds of survival lower. The Player has to weight these DMs and odds, and then make a choice and see how it goes.)


You can also put him in a service that you think will kill him, be surprised when he survives, musters out with some interesting skills, and wonder “Who is this guy?”

And then follow him into play to find out what will happen and how he’ll conduct himself in order to survive while pursuing wealth and power on the fringes of society.

How he will conduct himself will, by definition, provide interesting roleplaying and memorable moments that can’t be gained by simply plowing through circumstances with an average and powered up PC.

The game was built to provide a range of kinds of characters, inspiring roleplay through both strengths and weaknesses. Again, Classic Traveller is built on a “play the hand you are dealt philosophy.” Let us say you roll up characteristics of 222222. Your guy, until he dies, has characteristics of 222222. Okay, now what are you going to do with that?

The answer to that question is part of what Classic Traveller is about.



* A Note: First, one could bypass the services, start at 18, and use the Experience rules to train in two weapons (a blade and firearm). It’s possible!

And hers is another thing I never see people do, but the rules would allow. You blow off enlistment and seek a Psionics Institute. This would allow better odds for more power and versatility in psionics than one would get at a later age. By using the Experience rules, one could choose two weapons (blade and firearm) and have them at an expertise of 1. Not something most people are going to do. But I think it’s worth noting!

TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–A Subsector Map and a Cluster

A Subsector Map:

FullSizeRender-10The lines between worlds are charted space lanes generated with the 1977 rules. These are navigational routes allowing a starship to travel safely from one system to another without the Generate program. The charts are encoded on self-erasing cassettes that can be purchased from starports within jump range of the destination world.

A charted space lane does not guarantee regular traffic. Only that the route is traveled enough, and the information updated frequently enough, to make it safe to travel there without the Generate program.

You’ll notice I erased a few of the lanes. This is in part to clean up the map. If there is a route that extends from A port to a B port and the B port connects to a C port, one can assume there is a route from the A port to the C port without having to directly connect the A to C port.

The other reason is that I’m still futzing with the subsector and deciding about how many worlds in that lower right corner already have space lanes routes. I’m pretty sure that the B starport world in 0708 will still connect to the E starport world in 0709. But many of those fainter lines will take a bit of work on the part of the players to reach them. They’ll have to scrape together enough money to get the Generate program, or charter a flight, and so on.

Notice that the two worlds with E-class starports next to 0708 do not have gas giants. The 1977 rules require gas giants for skimming unrefined fuel. This means that if one arrives in jump-1 ship one cannot leave again unless one carries extra fuel in the hold. Other methods of reaching these worlds and returning involve chartering ships, working one’s way up to a jump-2 ship (and using half the fuel one way and half the fuel the other way.) In short, these two worlds will really not have been visited much, offering a terrific sense of “journeying into the unknown” — which is very much the feel I want to offer to the Players.

I’ll be focusing on a cluster of star systems at first:

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Six worlds, one of them being a high tech level world with an A-class starport.

From these worlds a series of lesser starport worlds trail off to the lower corner. And then we can head to another A-class starport in the other direction. But generating enough details for these first six worlds will be enough to get me going.

The subsector is beyond the edge of the empire the characters have come from. If they have a Scout ship or Free Trader then they have sailed that ship a great distance to arrive at this section of space.

The subsector is not ruled by any  central government; it has no shared culture; the worlds are culturally and technologically isolated . Trade is sparse, though a few world governments and charter companies do have ships established for trade between a few key worlds. Not many ships ply the darkness between worlds.

Per the 1977 Ship Encounter rules pirates and government ships cluster around A and B starports. The D and E starports see little if any trade. The danger at the these worlds off the beaten path is isolation and the environment itself. Tensions exist between higher tech worlds with A class starports. The conflicts are often fought on other worlds as natural resources become a point of contention. There will be an underground mystical order with psionic powers trying to unseat these powerful governments and instal their faith as the ruling order.

The worlds of the setting will have for the most part an exotic and even archaic spirit and aesthetic to them. The player characters will be from a more “conservative” (cultural, not political) and recognizable society that the Players can easily identify with. I want a sense of each culture being a bit different and unique. The player characters will definitely be “outsiders” finding their way amid these new worlds.

The fictional inspiration points are the E. C. Tubb’s Dumarest books, “The Beyond” from Jack Vance’s Demon Princes books, Frank Herbert’s  Dune with its raw and dangerous environment, as well as movies like The Man Who Would be King, The Wild Bunch, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, which focus on ex-military who head off into conflicts and lands uncivilized to find their fortunes.

Notes for My First Session of My Lamentations of the Flame Princess Campaign

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I just came across the pages shown in this post. This is how my Lamentations of the Flame Princess campaign began, with three people I knew, and three others I found off of Meetup.

I started my campaign with a brief adventure called Stranger Storm from the original LotFP Referee Book and the notes pictured above. (You can get the PDF of the LotFP Referee Book for free at RPGNow.)

The Player Characters started on a road, at night. They had each rolled a rumor from the World Rumor Table I made, as well as rumors about meteorites that had fallen to the south a few nights earlier.

They were looking to find the meteorites, but would encounter the situation of Stranger Storm along the way.

The adventure Stranger Storm has no maps. I grabbed some maps from other RPG books to help me out.

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So, I started with:

  1. Rumor Table (which focuses the players, but lets the choose what to do)
  2. Stranger Storm (With a few alterations of the creatures to fit my campaign. Specifically I altered the nature of the Changelings to make them into arcane spies of sorcerers of Carcosa.)
  3. A stack of LotFP adventures that the Rumors on the Rumor Table point to
  4. The notes I have attached in photos
  5. A map of an inn and of a small keep I cribbed from elsewhere (they never went to the keep)

We’ve been playing for over a  year, alternating games on occasion, for a solid six months of play so far.

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TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–Another Difference Between the 1977 Edition and the 1981 Edition

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I’ve posted before about the differences between the 1977 edition of Books 1-3 and the 1981 edition of books 1-3.

Here’s another difference! The nature of the Starship Encounters Table produces very different results.

Here are the rules from 1977:

SHIP ENCOUNTER RULES
When a ship enters a star system, there is a chance that any one of a variety of ships will be encountered. The ship encounter table is used to determine the specific type of vessel which is met. This result may, and should, be superseded by the referee in specific situations, especially if a newly entered system is in military or civil turmoil, or involves other circumstances.

Throw two dice; apply a DM based on the starport of the primary world of the system (A +6, B +4, C +2, D +1, E –2, X –4). The result indicates the ship type encountered. If necessary, exact specifications for the ship should be generated. Both Patrol and Pirate Ships will generally be Type S Scout/Couriers (throw 6–) or Type C Cruisers (throw 8+), with the chance that they are Armed Type Y Yachts (throw 7).

Ship Encounters Table
Die……….Ship Encountered
8 or less…No encounter
9………….Free Trader
10 ………..Free Trader
11 ………..Free Trader
12 ………..Pirate
13 ………..Subsidized Merchant
14 ………..Patrol
15 ………..Subsidized Merchant
16 ………..Yacht
17 ………..Yacht
18 ………..Patrol

Free Traders, if friendly, may serve as a source of information about other circumstances in the system; Subsidized Merchants may also provide such information. Patrols may be simple border pickets, or may be a form of pirate, exacting tolls or penalties.

And here the Starship Encounter rules from 1981:

STARSHIP ENCOUNTERS

When a starship enters a system, there is a chance that it will encounter any one of a number of different ships going about their business. Very often, the exact encounter is the responsibility of the referee; for routine encounters, or for inspiration, the accompanying starship encounter table is provided.

The table classifies each system by the starport within it. Two dice are rolled and modified by the presence of scout or naval bases in the system. If a dash is shown on the table, then there is no encounter. The letter codes indicate the various types’ of standard design ships described earlier in this book. The referee should examine the specific type of ship involved and determine the precise nature of the encounter. Free traders may want to swap rumors and gossip; scouts may want information; patrol cruisers may want to inspect for smugglers.

The suffix P on any ship type can be construed as pirate; such a ship will probably attack, or at least try to achieve a position where it can make the attempt.

It is also possible to encounter a variety of small craft in a system. If an asterisk appears on the table entry, a small craft has also been encountered. Roll one die and consult the standard small craft table to determine type. This encounter occurs either before or after the large ship encounter.

The referee may want to use the reaction table from the encounter section of Book 3 to determine the precise reaction of any type of ship and crew.

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Let’s leave aside for the moment that the 1981 edition of the rules contain a larger range of ships. What interests me is a table that Aramis put together over at the Citizens of the Imperium which compared the odds of encounter a Patrol vs. Pirates in the 1977 edition and the odds of encountering a Patrol vs. Pirates in the 1981 edition. [The notions N, S, and B stand for the presence of a Naval Base, a Scout Base, or a base of both kinds in a given system.)

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Look at the difference. Out of 36 Throws for encounters when entering a system, the difference could not be more stark.

I’ll let Aramis sum it up:

In 77, pirates are the bane of populated systems, but are absent in the backwaters. The mains are dangerous for lack of services, not hostiles…

In 81, pirates are the scourge in the fringes – desperate men choking the lifeblood out of minor trade. Meanwhile, the major ports have no pirates, but plenty of law. And patrols are EVERYWHERE.

The “empire” of 81 leaves E and X alone, and to the pirates, but patrols the A and B systems, and the pirates only match with them in the C-ports.

The “empire” of 77 patrols everywhere, but is outgunned by pirates in the systems with good ports…

One is effective, the other not…

Carlobrand, another poster at CotI added:

’77 and ’81 paint starkly different trade pictures, if you think about the meaning behind the numbers.

Where there’s big money involved, that money will try to protect itself, and that clearly is not happening in the ’77 universe. ’77 is a universe of little trade between planets, with what trade occurs being the result of adventurous souls willing to take big chances to score that big hit. As Aramis points out, it’s not a universe where the interstellar forces of goodness and niceness are very effective. Maybe they are more effective somewhere else, but they’re not very effective where the players are. It’s a universe where anarchy has the upper hand out in the airless void …

… and as such, it is a small-ship universe. Big ships in trade mean big money and, as I noted, big money tries to protect itself.

By the ’81 universe, it seems they’re giving thought to an Imperium, or at least some organized effort to protect the trade lanes. There’s enough economic activity going on up there to justify a planet putting up enough force to push piracy out to the hinterlands. Could be big ship, could be lots of small ships, but there’s enough to warrant a real effective effort, at least where the bulk of traffic is.

I concur with the statements of aramis and Carlobrand.

Here are a few more differences between the 1977 rules and text and the 1981 rules and text:

When we look at the 1977 rules, we also find that there are Charted Space Lanes rather than Communication Routes in setting up a subsector.

Space Lanes are pre-plotted Jump plans that can be bought on cassettes that self-erase after one use. A ship with the Generate Program does not need them. But a ship without a Generate program needs them if it is going to get from one system to another. And if a Space Lane between two systems has not yet been charted at all, then the Generate program is required for a ship to get to it.

Also: The 1977 rules have no Travel Zones (Amber or Red). As one can see from the quotes above, it seems unlikely that governments that is constantly trying to swat away pirates from A starport systems (and not succeeding) will be able to interdict an entire system. Instead, all worlds, no matter how dangerous, are open to Player Character travellers if that’s where they want to go. They could, of course, encounter resistance from any number of factions. But there is nothing on the books advising or warning them not to go.

Also: while digging into this I came across this first paragraph from the section on Starship Encounters on p. 36 of the 1977 edition of Book 2:

When a ship enters a star system, there is a chance that any one of a variety of ships will be encountered. The ship encounter table is used to determine the specific type of vessel which is met. This result may, and should, be superseded by the referee in specific situations, especially if a newly entered system is in military or civil turmoil, or involves other circumstances.

This assumes a setting that will have “military or civil turmoil” in the space between worlds. Not that there has to be turmoil. That is up to the Referee and the worlds he or she builds. But it is certainly implied there can be such turmoil, and the text encourages the Referee to think in terms of offering up such turmoil. But this sensibility is in contrast to the rules of the OTU’s Third Imperium which allows conflicts on worlds, but not in the space between them.

These elements alone are enough to bring me peace of mind. This is the sort of rough-and-tumble setting that I always imagined for Traveller because, of course, I bought the 1977 edition in my youth.

During the game line’s development the rules changed, the OTU was developed, and the game and the setting became one thing. My view of what sort of environment the Traveller rules originally implied became erased. When I would say, “The Spinward Marches seems safer and more civilized than I want,” I would be met with the reply, “How can you say that? It’s on the edge of the Imperium. There’s all sorts of adventure.”

Which is true, by the way. There is all sorts of adventure in The Spinward Marches. Nonetheless, to me, with all its mega corporations with tendrils to the smallest and off the beaten path worlds, its empire capable of interdicting entire star systems, its vast fleet of enormous startups that utterly dwarfed the ships of the player characters, its all seemed a much different environment than those I remembered reading about when I first bought the rules. Overall, the Third Imperium enforced a law and order across the stars that wasn’t in alignment with my sensibility for Science-Fiction Adventure in the Far Future. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Traveller was always about the Referee making the setting he or she wanted to share with is players. GDW made the setting they wanted from the core rules — and that is awesome.)

Now, I’m not saying playing with the 1977 rules is the “right” way to play, or that the setting implied by the rules is the right kind of setting to use.

I bring this up, as I always do, to open up the possibilities of play. The Third Imperium is a an awesome application of the Traveller rules to make a specific setting. It is the setting the guys at GDW wanted to make–and make it they did. But the Third Imperium is not the only setting–or even kind of setting–that works well with the Traveller rules.

And we know this because when we look back at the 1977 rules we see an utterly different kind of setting than we would see in later years as the the game line added more rules, ignored other rules, and built a setting that actually is at odds with the rules in Books 1-3.


A thought experiment:

Let’s use the rules and observations of aramis and Carlobrand above, along with rules shared with the 1981 edition:

  • no fuel purifiers (which were introduce in Book 5–and is one of the most fundamental changes to the rules)
  • a cap on ship size at 5,000 tons (or so — yes, yes, I know one can extend the table)
  • the discussions of pirates and hijackings as a threat in Book 2
  • the need for Refined Fuel (which is only found at 37% of starports) to travel without the risk of drive failures and misjumps (both of which can cause catastrophic results)
  • the fact that Refined Fuel will only be available, on average, in 37% of star systems when rolled using tables in Book 3
  • Space travel is relatively expensive compared to the living expenses listed in Book 3:

Costs of Living per Book 3
– Ordinary food and housing is Cr4,800 per year (estimate Cr12,000 annual income)
– High food and housing is Cr10,800 per year (estimate Cr27,000 annual income)
Costs of Space Travel Passage per Book 2
– High Passage: Cr10,000
– Middle Passage: Cr8,000
– Low Passage: Cr1,000

(And remember, those passage prices are per jump)

  • governments do not handle communication through interstellar mail, but hire independent contractors to carry the mail
  • the fact that some people who need to travel but can only scrape together the Cr1000 needed for a Low Passage ticket are willing to risk a base 15% chance of death in order to get to another world
  • the fact that the interstellar culture is clearly stratified along class in some fashion or another

First: are there any other differences between the 1977 and 1981 rules that provide interesting contrasts in terms of setting?

Second: what sort of assumptions can be made about the setting? What are the implications? What do we think the settings would be like drawn from these rules and bits of text?

 

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

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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:

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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…

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

der-entdecker

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:

A THOUGHT I’VE HAD THAT I HAVE NOWHERE ELSE TO PUT

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.”)


HISTORICAL CONTEXT

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.

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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
EXPERIENCE: 0
TREASURE: 12 SP

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”:

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:

 TASK  SUCCESS  NOTES 
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.