TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–The Use of Planetary Government in Traveller

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Following up on the post about building a system from the Universal World Profile:

In the original Traveller rules (Traveller Books 1, 2, and 3) the UWP is a tool for the Referee to help create compelling worlds for the Player Characters to encounter and adventure in. The UWP, in these early rules, are not created by the Imperial Interstellar Scout Service (there is no IISS in Books 1, 2, and 3). It is not an “in-fiction” piece of information to be handed to the Player Character via Library Data. Because it doesn’t exist in the fiction. Again, it is a tool for tracking certain rules elements — Law Level, for example, or the effect the world’s diameter will have on the gear that can be carried. And it is a spur to the imagination, providing a shorthand of key details in the broadest strokes… but it is not a literal description of the world itself.

We know it is not a literal description of the world based on an essay Marc Miller wrote in 1982 for High Passage called Planetary Governments in Traveller.

The essay begins:

One of the social factors in the Universal World Profile is called government type, and it purports to indicate the style by which the local government rules itself (or is ruled by others). The list of government types is long and spans the available options from the simple participating democracy to the esoteric charismatic oligarchy. Most notable, however, is the absence of some routinely expected government types; types such as empire, presidency, or monarchy. Similarly, breakdowns such as aristocracy, plutocracy, or matriarchy are also omitted.

The reason, in reality, is that they are not omitted or absent; the many varied types of government which can be imagined all fit into the basic scheme given in the Traveller government tables. To understand this, it is important to remember just what purpose the government factor is meant to serve. Traveller players and characters are rarely involved with governments on the international and interplanetary level. That is to say, they do not deal with kings or presidents or heads of state; they deal with individual members of broad government mechanisms, they deal with office holders and employees whose attitudes and actions are shaped by the type of government they serve. As a result, travellers are rarely interested in the upper reaches of government; they want to know what they can expect from the governmental structure at their own level. For example, if a group of travellers were to journey across the United States from coast to coast, they would be interested in the degree of responsiveness they could expect from local governments, in how easy the local court clerk would respond to information requests, or in the degree of difficulty that could be expected in obtaining certain licenses. As they moved through Nebraska, the fact that that state has a unicameral legislature would be of little or no importance.

For this reason, among others, labels such as monarchy have been eliminated. Calling a government type “monarchy” would conjure up images of a king and his retinue, but still leaves a lot of information unrelated. Within the Traveller system, such a government could be classified as a self-perpetuating oligarchy (hereditary monarchy), representative democracy (constitutional monarchy), feudal technocracy (enlightened feudal monarchy), captive government (puppet monarchy), civil service bureaucracy, or any of several others. The simple term monarchy becomes nonsense when one attempts to apply it to a widespread classification system.

Another reason for the labels that are provided in the government classification system is as an aid to imagination. The unaided imagination of even the most inventive referee can go dry after generating a few simple worlds. Using die rolls to create the individual factors for planets jogs the imagination, forcing the referee to think of rationales for the combinations that occur. The use of too familiar terms (such as monarchy) can stifle imagination by allowing the referee to settle into old lines of thought.

The big take away from the quote above (emphasis added) is that the government factor is built to create elements for the Player Characters to interact with. The totality of what a planet’s government is or might be is not described in the UWP.

Thus, the UWP isn’t trying to be a taxonomy of “reality.” It is establishing details that will push at the Player Characters and which the Player Characters will interact with directly.

As Miller explains above, “Monarchy” can be many of the Government types, because what matters is whether the Monarchy interacts with the public (which means the PCs) through the interface of an Impersonal Bureaucracy, Religious Dictatorship, and so on.

The text in the 1977 edition of Book 3 is clearer about these matters in its description of government types. Examples:

GOVERNMENTAL TYPE

0       No government structure. In many cases, family bonds will predominate.

1       Company/Corporation. Ruling functions are assumed by a company managerial elite, and most citizenry are company employees or dependents.

2      Participating Democracy. Ruling function decisions are reached by the advice and consent of the citizenry directly.

3     Self-Perpetuating Oligarchy. Ruling functions are performed by a restricted minority, with little or no input from the mass of citizenry.

4     Representative Democracy. Ruling functions are performed by elected representatives.

5     Feudal Technocracy. Ruling functions are performed by specific individuals for persons who agree to be ruled by them. Relationships are based on the performance of technical activities which are mutually beneficial.

6     Captive Government. Ruling functions are performed by an imposed leadership answerable to an outside group. A colony or conquered area.

7     Balkanization. No central ruling authority exists; rival governments compete for control. Law level refers to government nearest the starport.

8     Civil Service Bureaucracy. Ruling functions are performed by government agencies employing individuals selected for their expertise.

9     Impersonal Bureaucracy. Ruling functions are performed by agencies which have become insulated from the governed citizens.

A    Charismatic Dictator. Ruling functions are performed by agencies directed by a single leader who enjoys the overwhelming confidence of the citizens.

B     Non-Charismatic Leader. A previous charismatic dictator has been replaced by a leader through normal channels.

C     Charismatic Oligarchy. Ruling functions are performed by a select group of members of an organization or class which enjoys the overwhelming confidence of the citizenry.

D     Religious Dictatorship. Ruling functions are performed by a religious organization without regard to the specific individual needs of the citizenry.

The focus is on the term “ruling functions” in each definition of each government type.

This term does not appear in later editions of the rules when describing government type and the whole idea of the UWP begins to shift. Thus, the 1981 edition of the game removed the words “ruling functions” from the description of Government Types. And in time the UWP would become a creation of the IISS to be handed to the Player Characters… even though the UWP is there as a prod to the imagination, to be as elastic and useful to the Referee in creating a world but not any sort of literal description of the world.

And once we add on the details that really flesh the world out as we daydream about the UWP then the UWP will tell us almost nothing about the world in many respects. (See the link at the top of this post for an example of what I’m talking about.) The UWP will barely scratch the surface of how interesting a world is once the Referee starts working up notes.

That is, if we are willing to use the UWP as a jumping off point rather than a limit to what the world can be.

 

Classic Traveller: Making a World from the Universal World Profile

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After playing around with Classic Traveller’s system for generating Main Worlds and subsectors, I have decided to add the Tags system from Stars Without Numbers as part of the process.

Here’s why:

I think the Classic Traveller Main World generation system is compelling as all hell. It offers the Referee a tool to make him go… “Hmmm… what crazy-SF-themed thing is going on here to justify these numbers?”

The weakness in it, if it is one, is that it might suggest to people, “Roll up these numbers, slap on some obvious high-tech explanation for any obvious inconsistencies, and you’re done.”

But I think that’s doing the system a disservice. The trap is that, like the Original Dungeons & Dragons rules before it, at the time of the game’s publication the game assumed that people who would pick up a game about “Science-Fiction Adventure in the Far Future” would be deeply read in the science fiction stories preceding the game’s publication.

If we turn to the stories that inspired Marc Miller when he was writing Traveller we find the works of E.C. Tubb, Jack Vance, Poul Anderson, Jerry Pournelle, H. Beam Piper, Andre Norton, and others. And in these tales we find that the worlds and SF premises of countless worlds that would be considered outlandish by the standards of today’s science-fiction.

I bring all this up to say, if one roll up the UWP numbers, slap on some obvious high-tech explanation for any obvious inconsistencies, and call it done, one is missing the next step… which is to create the weird, the unexpected, the spectacular, the strange, the exotic, and the unique worlds that would be at home in the science-fiction tales and novels from the 40s through the mid-70s. These are the qualities that these stories from the 40s, 50s, 60s, and early 70s traded in.

The problem is that the Classic Traveller Main World generation system doesn’t necessarily lead to the qualities. It is presumed. But if one assume the underlying quality of the setting is being “realistic” or “hard SF” one can easily iron out these presumed qualities. And if one hasn’t read the books that inspired the game, or even know about them, it might seem that the string of numbers is enough. (One might even be confused as to why the randomly rolled values are so strange!) But it isn’t. The string of numbers is a jumping off point for creating a world.

Later Classic Traveller material, as well as later editions of Traveller, would drill down deeper into astronomical detail when generating world and systems. I would offer this is the wrong direction — at least the wrong direct from the original concept of the game. (If that’s the sort of game the Referee wants AWESOME! I am simply talking about the core conceits and purpose of the game as originally written.)

Marc Miller was not only an Army Captain but also got a B.A. in Sociology. Combined with the compelling conceits about countless societies found in the books by Tubb, Piper, Vance, Bester, Norton, Anderson, Pournelle, and all the other SF authors that inspired Classic Traveller, a compelling case can be made that the focus of the game is not actually Hard SF and astronomical detail, but rather all the interesting cultures and societies the characters the Player Characters get to encounter, puzzle out, and interact with.

Certainly that’s the argument I’m making in this post.

So if we roll up a string of numbers that give us facts about a world, do we necessarily end up with compelling societies and cultures for the player character travellers to interact with? Not necessarily.

The strength of adding the Tags from Stars Without Numbers into the mix is that it immediately colors the world being created with culture, society, factions, conflicts, and NPCs. It encourages the Referee to make something extraordinary that the Player Characters can encounter and interact that is new and fresh and unexpected.

Recently I started nailing down a subsector of my own.  I rolled up the locations of the worlds in the subsector, their respective spaceport types, and the space lanes from the 1977 rules. I made notes for the kind of setting I wanted for the subsector.

Then I chose a cluster of stars for the beginning of a campaign. (For a variety of reasons I like to “Star Small” when working up a subsector. Here on some thoughts on that.) From that cluster I picked the first wold I would begin with: the world in the middle of the cluster with an A class starport. This is where the PCs would begin.

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For that world I rolled a UWP of A-210989-B. So we have a world only 2,000 miles in diameter, with a very thin atmosphere, and a population of billions. “Exactly,” I thought, “how would this work?”

I then thought of an O’Neill Cylinder in orbit around the sun near the planet, which the colony used for mining. But then I realized that an O’Neill Cylinder wouldn’t hold billions. Some quick research and some math told me I would need about 1000 O’Neill Cylinders in orbit to hold the population of the system.

That’s kind of over the top, right? But AWESOME. The image of A THOUSAND O’NEILL CYLINDERS glittering in the sun as a ship approaches would be an astounding sight. And the world itself, small though it is, would be lit up with millions of bright lights as the entire surface of the plane is part of a mining operation that has been going on for a hundred years. Other ships blink in and out of existence as they Jump within the system to gather resources from other worlds within the system.


— Sample Tags from Stars Without Numbers. You roll two Tags to flesh out a world.

I then rolled on the SWN Tags and got Civil War (!) and Restrictive Laws. The Restrictive Laws was an easy fit with the Law Level of 9 that I had already rolled. But the notion of a Civil War raging across these islands in space really caught my imagination. I want the setting to be at the fringes of an ancient, failing interstellar empire. I wanted a noble of the empire to rule the star system. And now I saw that noble’s grasp on the system failing. More importantly, a 1,000 O’Neill Cylinders are fragile. There would be many laws restriction munitions and conflict. The Restrictive Laws would fold neatly into a culture of many rules and customs that keep conflict from spilling out of control and literally tearing the ground out from under the feat of the citizens.

I have no idea yet what the Civil War is about, or whether it has even started. But already I have conflict and action coming to bear in a unique culture driven by the SF details of the setting. This also all works within the Government Type: A Civil Service Bureaucracy mired in tradition. I’m seeing lots of robes with bright colors and elegant patterns that denote one’s station in the hierarchy. The institutions of the system keep generating new rules to sustain their sense of power and order even as they fail to see that discord is brewing below their elegant and elaborate customs and laws.

All of this seems worthy of a setting of a story for Vance or Anderson and the other authors listed above. And three things:

  1. I am clearly not taking the UWP literally (which I don’t think is the point of the UWP, so I don’t)
  2. I do want to spend some time figuring out what it means to fight a war amid islands that can shatter and kill millions if things get too hot, so how does one “fight a civil war” in this kind of terrain. But won’t it be awesome to find out?
  3. I’m not worried about it being fully “realistic.” That is, it will need to have a layer of verisimilitude and self-consistency to feel real. But ultimately there will be awesome adventures, action, puzzle solving, and more… all from rolling 9 pairs of dice and discovering images that excited me from those rolls.

An Improvised Classic Traveller Convention Game

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I was at a local convention a couple of months ago and decided mid-way through the day I wanted to run some Classic Traveller during one of the gaming blocks. I went to the sign up desk, grabbed one of the templates, and wrote out a quick description about hunting for treasure on a war-torn world. Then, during lunch, I set about hacking some notes together.

I’ve moved to index cards for my Lamentations of the Flame Princess game. I have come to prefer them for two reasons:

  • They make me keep my information, ideas, and descriptions short. And I’ve learned brief chunks of information are more practical for my RPG play. I need data I can grasp at a glance and move on. I need something brief that can inspire me for more ideas in the moment and that I can relate to the Players (via their Player Characters) through specific interactions. Lots and lots of detail means I am sitting there reading a bunch of stuff that I can’t get out all at once. So for now I’m in the habit of jotting down what can fit on an index card per subject and moving on.
  • I love that I can pull the cards that I need out from the index card file box, set them out in front of me for reference, and then when I am done put them back.

I got myself some index card tabs that I use to divide the cards into different categories, most of which are NPCs and Encounters divided by location. Here’s an image from the cards from my Lamentations of the Flame Princess game.

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I had no other Classic Traveller material with me. But luckily I have stored a ton of stuff on this blog as PDFs and images. So I pulled up this blog on my iPhone and got to work.

I grabbed some pre-made Player Characters from a file I had shared before. I transferred four Player Characters to index cards. Each player would choose one. I made them all Marines so that the Players would have easy hooks to each other. (See the cards at the top of this post.) Normally I love having people roll up Classic Traveller characters. But I’ve learned that simple as the process is the first time someone does it takes a while. And I really wanted to have more time to play the adventure.

While I was working on that I was back-burnering some thoughts for the adventure.

I wanted a clear goal out of the gate. (It was a four hour convention slot after all). So there was a treasure the PCs were after. I decided we’d go in media res–the PCs would already be on the trail of the treasure and were closing in on it when the game started. This way we could just get on with it instead of spending that first hour of everyone trying to figure out if they were on the “right path” for the adventure.

So I hacked together a few facts for the Players to have before we began:

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The Player Characters would be chasing down rumors of an idol that was smuggled off a world decades ago and sold for a great fortune. It became a tale told in the culture of travellers, but no one had yet found the world where it had come from.

I decided the Player Character would already know about the idol, already had competition also looking for the world to see if there were more valuable idols (Captain Brand and his crew). Further, before play began I would explain to the Players their PCs had confirmed the location of a descendent of the man who had found the first idol, were meeting with him and got map of where his grandfather had found the idols, but that Brand and his men arrived, killed their contact in a fire-fight, and escaped with the map. Thus, the race was on.

The name of the world was Pherris, and I whipped up for factions to engage the Player Characters:

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House Silis were the noble house that ruled Pherris in the name of a failing, ancient empire. The Takar were an humanoid-insect race that the humans had conquered decades ago. Some Takar were loyal to the humans, but others were beginning to revolt against human rule. And then there was Captain Brand and his men.

I started up three types of Takar really fast:

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I decided the idols were made by an aboriginal culture and that the properties of the crystals keep a great beast in a great cavern in a state of suspended animation:

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I have already designed Classic Traveller Weapon Cards for ease of play, but didn’t have them with me. But using my phone I jotted down some common weapons we’d be using during the game to have them on hand. I didn’t give them to the players. I simply gave them the Throw values as needed.

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As for the game, it went gangbusters. Three players signed up. (One was from my regular Monday Night Group, the other two were strangers.)

The Players (by their own accounts) had a really great time. A loose premise, a few notes, a lose structure for an evening’s entertainment… and then winging it in terms of both the players’ choices and the pacing as seemed appropriate.

Lots of fun world-building on the fly. It was a world dominated by high tech humans lording over an aboriginal humanoid-like insect population that lived at a Tech Level 0 capability. But I found I was adding solid details beat by beat to fill out the sense of reality as we went. I described the cold of the world. How the Takar could essentially hibernate as needed to conserve food and energy. I told the Players, “Because you’ve all served you know the imposing architecture of the Silis Palace is not there to defend against attacks from space but to be imposing to the natives of this world.” What I was looking for was not a “Hard SF” but enough details that made sense and an internal logic to give a patina of logic and science fiction–just like the fiction that inspired Marc Miller to create the game.

The experimentation I had done with other con games with Traveller paid off here as I knew the limits of the game and when to simply move things along. I was, per all my blog posts and comments here, a Referee who adjudicated the “logic” of the world and actions of the PCs quickly, often without requiring rolls, and then came up Throws on the fly. No player blinked at that.

Because I had the pre-generated Player Characters I used my time at the top of the session to do a preamble about how the game was going to play differently than most games from the mid-80s on. I talked about the role of the referee. I talked about how they should not limit themselves to the skill list of what they can do but to look at the first line of the PC Index Card in front of them that listed their service branch (former Marines for all), age, and terms of service. “Remember,” I said, “if there is something you think a marine should be able to do, you can probably do it.”

Then came characteristics. And then skills under all that. I described how Throws could be made for almost anything. That they might not be able to try some things at all, but other times they could make a throw and sometimes a expertise rating might be a DM, or a very high or low characteristic might be a DM, or having been a Marine might be a DM. And other times they might simply do what they want if they have the right qualities of skill or characteristic or background without even having to make a roll.

I explained that Classic Traveller has no Experience system for activities or deeds done during play. Which means the Players have to set up their own goals or agendas and judge for themselves if they are getting closer or further way from what they want only through the details of the fiction. This makes it a unique game within the range of RPGs as far as I know. If the Players don’t know what they want the game might well grind to a halt.

I explained the notion that space travel between the stars is relatively slow compared to what we are used to in most mass-media. I watched eyes widen with both sudden comprehension and delight at this notion. I will admit this delighted me — as I could see this novel aspect pulled all of them closer to core conceit of the game and the idea that it could take weeks, if not months, to travel a vast chain of star systems. The idea that space was BIG and travel between the stars was a BIG DEAL was beginning to take hold.

Then I broke the news that communication only moved at the speed of travel. Eyebrows went up. Smiles appeared. This was apparently A REALLY COOL NOTION. “No faster than light communication at all?”

“Nope,” I replied.

“Like ships have to carry messages and communications between worlds?”

“Exactly,” I said. “Like packet boats in the Age of Sail.”

And with the three players really _got_ the core conceit of Traveller’s one core setting element and seemed _delighted_ with this notion.

I asked them to tell me what one item they still carried with them from their time in the service (A jacket; a footlocker; pistols with handle grip designs commemorating a field action of great import).

I asked them to look at their age, terms of service, characteristics, and skills and think not in terms of what their character could _do_ but how this informed the characterization of the character. “Looking at these details, who is this character? How do they see themselves? What do they want? Why are they traveling between stars when most people never do?”

I asked them how they met (after each of them mustered out, kicking around the stars and lacking focus), and what they sought.

One had been a quartermaster, always working to make an extra buck. I handed him the background details: Rumors of a crystal statue of great wealthy sold by a man 60 years ago for a million credits. The world was unknown, but rumor was he meant to go back years ago and get more.

I explained they had met up as this marine pursued this rumor. They were going to be meeting with the man who claimed to be the long dead man’s grandson to get more details: the name of the world, a map.

The crew of a free trader charged into the bar during the meet. The man with the map was killed during an exchange of fire. The map stolen from them.

The PCs worked passage on ships with greater jump capability than the free trader to beat their adversaries to the world. There they worked themselves into the planetary forces dealing with an uprising of “the abos” (aboriginals) who were now fighting against the abos who were loyal to the human ruling class. This allowed them to scope out the situation a bit before the other crew arrived on planet and gave them authority to take action agains the crew when they arrive. (The arriving crew made the mistake of looking like they were trying to sneak onto the planet to smuggle weapons to the rebels abos.)

Lots of adventure, the Players being smart, unexpected mysteries. They realized there was a rebellion happening–and got themselves hired into the local militia. With their imperial training they were a cut above the local forces and managed to get themselves wide leeway going out on ‘patrols” (but really trying to track down the location of the idols) without having anyone keeping too close an eye on them. (Please note: I did not think of this as a plan or expect it at all. This was something the Player Characters came up with on their own… and it was quite smart. I had no “adventure” planned. Just a situation. It was up to the Players to figure how how they would move their characters forward. It was up to me to provide obstacles and opportunity.)

They found the crystal statues and figured out they were used to keep a buried creature in hibernation through psionic energy. They stole the crystals, awoke and unleashed what was pretty much a T-Rex. Hijinks ensued.

It was a sold old school game that could have been expanded greatly both in terms of play time at the table and as a campaign. The players were coming with all sorts of smart ideas that would have paid off for a longer campaign and I had to say things like, “That’s really great. But we have forty minutes left for a con game. What is your objective now.”

One player (former Army, as it happens), as we took a break halfway through the session said, “I have to tell you…. I am having a great time.”

So everyone thought it rocked.

And I type all this up to say–the game was written and designed to play this easy, fast, and loose play–and you can play this way too. No long, detailed introduction from the Referee about politics that the Player Characters can’t influence anyway. No thoughtfully pre-planned adventure the Player Characters are supposed to follow. No expectations of what the Players will do.

I simply came up with some notes. Let the Players move forward with their plans. Made rolls to see how things turned out when required, let them succeed without rolls if that made sense. And everyone had a great time.

Just sayin’.

My Favorite SF RPG…

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On an gaming forum I visit someone asked, “What is you favorite SF Roleplaying Game?” Unsurprisingly I replied…


The choice for me is Classic Traveller. And by Classic Traveller I mean Traveller Books 1-3.

Why I like Classic Traveller the most is built on several reasons I’ve been thinking about lately:

STATE BLOCKS FOR NPCS AND ALIENS
Do you know how easy it is to stat an NPC in Classic Traveller? This easy:
5468A7. Rifle-0. Mechanical-1
Boom. That’s crazy easy.
As someone who really wants to spend more time just making shit up with my friends in response to the ideas, plans, actions, and choices they throw at me.
I cannot overstate the brilliance of Marc Miller’s design in this regard.

STAT BLOCKS FOR BEASTS
Sure, it’s a bit more complicated, but watch this:
Gatherer 50kg Hits: 11/2 Armor: jack-1 Wounds: 7 teeth+1 Responses: A9 F8 S2
Still, sweet!

TERRIFIC PROCEDURAL GENERATION MATERIAL FOR THE REFREE
The dense layer of procedural generation of Worlds, Encounters (NPCs, Animals, Legal, Patron), Encounter Range, and NPC Reaction lets me generate content on the fly and help me come up with new ideas, locals, and situations I would never come up with on my own.

THE SITUATION THROW SYSTEM
A preposterously straightforward but crazily flexible resolution system to handle any situation that the PCs get into that the Referee wants to hand off to the dice for adjudication.

  • The scale is simple: a 2D6 bell curve. A Referee armed with a table showing the odds from 2-12 on 2D6 is good to go.
  • The Die Modifiers are intuitive: +DMs for skills, high characteristics, tools, character history, or situational modifiers the Players come up with. The -DMs are just as simple.
  • The trick is to take the system for what it is: A Referee driven simulation rather than a failed Skill System of later RPG design. But once you do that the game is excellent.

STRAIGHTFORWARD PLAYER CHARACTER DESIGN FOR MAKING ADVENTURERS
The game doesn’t try to present you with every type of person from every walk of life that could exist in an interstellar setting. It’s built to create characters who have the chops and the wherewithal and the focus to go on adventures in an adventure driven interstellar adventures.

The PCs can’t do everything, of course. The character generation tables offer a limited set of skills, and PCs will only have a few of those per PC. But this means that if the PCs don’t have the skill set available they will have to come up with adventure-driven schemes and shenanigans to keep going: steal the part they need to fix their ship because they don’t know how to fabricate it; get to the professor of ancient languages held against his will on the estate of the noble to translate the alien tablet they found; sneak into the government building using a clever ruse because this group doesn’t have someone with Computer skills; and so on.

IMPLIED ADVENTURE-DRIVEN SETTING DETAILS
While the rules have implied setting details they do not provide a setting. This allows me to build the cool setting that I want. And as for the implied setting details, what are they? That the distances between the stars matters, communication is slow, tech levels will vary greatly, space travel between the stars is expensive, dangerous, and a big deal. What does this give us: Implied setting details that support exotic, novel, adventuring environments with lots of space and room for adventures to go get into trouble, take risks. The procedural driven setting generation material, along with the random encounter material, all define a setting ripe for adventure.

INCREDIBLY FLEXIBLE
Ultimately Classic Traveller at its core isn’t limited to being a SF game. It is, instead, an awesome RPG engine with tools to build the setting you want and allows the Referee adjudicate clearly and the Players have an infinite latitude as to how handle problems and situations.

Want to use the rules to play a game set in WWII? You can do that. Want to use them to play cavemen? You can do that. Want to use them to play modern day Cthulhu? Why not? All one needs to do is come up with rebuilt character creation tables and you are good to go. (For the CoC you’ll want some sort of mechanic for insanity or insights or whatnot… but you’re a grownup. You can figure it out.)

Remember that the Psionics rules are a template for anything from Psionics, to magic spells, to magic weapons, to alien or monsters effects. Combined with the rules for Drugs (as well as the flexible weapons and armor rules) one can mix and match the rules to reproduce the effects of everything from cyberware to trans-human bioengineering. This flexibility allows a Referee to create truly alien SF worlds and technology in the standard “Science-Fiction Adventure in the Far Future” play mode… or use the game (as mentioned above) for completely different settings shorn of all SF trappings.

Classic Traveller is one of the most pure iterations of RPG play and design that I have ever seen. The fact that most people don’t (or can’t) see the game for what it is strikes me as odd. But that doesn’t change how amazing the game is.

 

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

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[A note before we begin. This is the second part of how I approach the uses of Throws in Classic Traveller. (The first part can be found here.) I make no claim that this is authoritative. It is a personal project, built off my own taste of how I want to use the rules and the kind play I want to find at the table. That said, these ideas are built of the text found in Traveler Books 1-3 and, per Part I, looking at the historical context of gaming and RPGS in the mid-70’s when Traveller was first published.]


It has long been noted that the Classic Traveller does not have a unified task resolution system. Instead it has an ad hoc system of Throws, with different Throws for different skills, and many of the rolls left without any sort of specific procedure or definition. For many, many people this is a problem. People want to know how the game works in a simple, consistent manner.

And it is important to note that most of RPG design in the decades since Classic Traveller’s release worked specifically toward the goal of making unified task/skill resolution systems.

The fact that so much design effort was spent in making such task/skill systems and that consumers responded positively to this new design philosophy certainly means that:

  1. later design philosophy is a distinct design philosophy from that found in the original Traveller rules
  2. many people prefer the later designs over the early RPG designs found in the original Dungeons & Dragons and original Traveller rules
  3. people prefer the later designs because it offers a certain kind of play that many people prefer

It is my thesis, however, that the Throw system found in Classic Traveller is still quit efficient, works wonderfully well, and produces a kind of play that many people enjoy.

But because RPG design has changed so much in the intervening decades since Classic Traveller’s release it is difficult in a way to tease out exactly how it is supposed to work. To this end, in this post I present my general outline of resolving moments of tension and crisis using the rules of Classic Traveller.


THE MISSING RULES
Here is a passage from the 1977 edition of Traveller Book 1. This passage does not appear in any later edition of the rules:

Skills and the Referee: It is impossible for any table of information to cover all aspects of every potential situation, and the above listing is by no means complete in its coverage of the effects of skills. This is where the referee becomes an important part of the game process. The above listing of skills and game effects must necessarily be taken as a guide, and followed, altered, or ignored as the actual situation dictates.

The significance of this passage is that it tells the Referee and the Players how to play the game.

Without the passage to make it clear that the lack of unified skill or task system is by design people are left to wonder how all the pieces of Classic Traveller fit together in a unified system. And, of course, as the passage was cut from later editions of the Classic Traveller rules (the 1981 edition, The Traveller Book, and Starter Traveller) people did scour the rules looking for the unified and logical system that would tell them how to make the rules work.

But the game wasn’t designed in that way. It was designed for the Referee to step up and handle situations ad hoc as defined in the passage above.

The logic of the passage grows from the kinds of gaming and Referee driven game play that Classic Traveller grew out of. (Again, as covered in Part I.) The fact that many, many players wanted something different from an RPG (that is, a game with a unified and comprehensive Skill/Task system) doesn’t change the fact that this kind of play works.

Once we put that passage back into the rules we can see that instead of turning to the rulebook to adjudicate how to handle moments of tension and crisis we now turn to the Referee to handle them. In this way the Referee in the rules of original Traveller is exactly like the Referee found in games like Free Kriegsspiel or Braunstien (as discussed in Part I of this series).

However, this does not mean the Referee is acting willy-nilly or left truly adrift in how to run the game. When I read the rules of Classic Traveller I see an order to how to resolve moments of crisis and tension and how to keep the game moving forward. I defined this order below.


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THE THROW SYSTEM

I do not think original Traveller has a Skill System. I believe has a Throw system. (Later editions of Traveller do have Skills Systems or “Task Systems”). Again, I’m not claiming this is “true” or “authoritative.” I’m only claiming that after digging into the original Traveller rules, (Books 1-3), and looking at all the text holistically, this interpretation makes sense to me.

Here is how I see the Throw system working for original Traveller:

  1. The game is a conversation between the Players and the Referee. The Players have their characters do things, the Referee has the world and the non-player characters respond. In general, things simply move along. Even moments of crisis can often be resolved without referring to a Throw. If a character has a shotgun and out of the blue announces he’s going to fire the weapon at someone standing right in front of him, I might well have him roll damage (or simply kill the NPC outright) rather than have a Throw for a hit.
    Other matters, from doing daily repairs to hacking into a civilians computer if one has Computer-1 or greater, often will require no roll. The Referee adjudicates whether a roll is required. He does this by thinking not in terms of “story” or what would be interesting, but honestly trying to be impartial judge of the elements of the world, reflecting back to the Players the forces and logic of the fictional setting already established.
  2. The Referee can also decide certain actions are impossible, and not even a Throw can make it happen. Some Throws will be impossible because a PC lacks a needed expertise, or a high enough expertise. In the same way, if a Player declares, “I jump to the moon!” it is in the Referee’s realm to prohibit a roll for it. It’s the Referee’s job to set the bar of “reality he wants for his game.
  3. Notes on the expertise of the Player Characters:
    • I use the term “expertise” rather than “skill.” The term expertise was used in the 1977 edition of the Traveller rules, and I think it better reflects the power and strength of any trained character. Expertise means a character is an expert in whatever skill is at hand, whether it be rifles or medical ability. It means they can be hired at better rates because they are very, very good at what they do. Remember that DM+1 on a 2D6 bell curve is a very big deal. A Rifle-1 doesn’t mean you can handle yourself on a shooting range; it means that in a combat situation, with that rifle in hand, you are above the average soldier. (The average soldier in the original Traveller rules will have an expertise of 0. He does not suffer the DM-5 of the untrained man using a firearm, but he gains no bonus either.)
    • Player Characters are not limited to doing the skills listed on their character sheet. The list of skills
  4. If the Referee decides the outcome is uncertain, or he cannot determine what the result should be, he calls for a Throw of the dice.
    • The Referee determines the Throw based on the circumstances of the fictional situation at hand. It is, for example, easier to perform CPR than surgery.
    • Various positive and negative DMs might be applied. Here are qualities that might provide DMs:
      – possessing a pertinent expertise
      – lacking a pertinent expertise
      – having the proper tools for the job
      – possessing a high or low characteristic that might provide a -DM or +DM
      – any other factors the Referee or Players deem important in the situation
      It is important to note that for me this part of the Throw (sussing out the fictional details involved in the Throw) is a continuation of the conversation mentioned above. This is not “stopping” the game for me, this is the Players and the Referee focusing on the Player Characters, their actions, the details of the environment, the specific actions being taken. It’s like a movie, where the camera is pointed at the pertinent details, revealing their importance to the audience. It makes the game (for me at least) richer and more real as we say, “Well, my guy is really strong (STR 10), and I think that’ll help him use the crowbar to leverage the wheel on the bulkhead door as the air is being sucked out of this section of the ship.” And then I say, “Right. Take a DM+1 on the Throw to get this door open before all the air is gone.”
  5. A key point of play for me is providing Players choices and then seeing how they handle them. (I call this “Providing them with Opportunities and Opposition.”)
  6. 2D6 are rolled. If the roll is equal to or greater than the value of the Throw, then success occurs. If not, then not.

The short version: 2D6 +/- DM ≥ Saving Throw Value equals success

The reason I don’t consider a Skill System is because not every Throw involves a skill. A character might try to bluff his way into a fancy party, with his Education or Social Standing (if very low or very high, as appropriate to the situation) as a DM.

Or the Referee could use the number of terms a character served in a service as a DM in a case where his is trying to influence members of that service to bend the laws for him, and so on.

In this way, original Traveller seems very similar to me to the Braunstein rules. That is, anything on the character sheet is fair game for a DM.

Moreover, even things not on the character sheet could come into play. If the Player Characters have been hanging around on a world for a while learning its language, and then travel to another world where they see some ancient inscriptions in an alien language on an old temple wall, the Referee might give them a roll to understand the langue because they had learning a similar language on the other world. In the same way, an NPC Reaction Roll might suffer a -DM if the Player Characters interacting with citizens of a world that the empire they are from recently conquered.

The point here is that not every roll is based on or modified by a skill. Anything from service branch, terms of service, rank, any of the six characteristics, history in play, circumstances of the situation (are they trying to track someone in the rain?), and anything else that seems pertinent, as well as skills, might influence the Throw number or DMs. There might be a expertise DM, there might not be. Sometimes the DMs based on skill rules will be positive, and sometimes, if lacking, will be negative. Sometimes a characteristic value will be a +DM, and other times, a -DM.

When we play this way we are building the imaginative qualities of the situation, with the roll made to determine, impartially and with finality, what the outcome is.

For me, this system works well as it encourages the Referee and the Players to add fictional details to the situation, the actions of the Player Characters and so on, in an effort to really determine how hard or difficult a situation might be, if a roll is required at all, and so on.

By layering these details we end up making the moment concrete and specific (and thus memorable) in the heads of everyone at the table. And that is the kind of play I like best.


In the next post I’ll expand on what I mean about “this kind of play” as well as discuss some of the implications of this kind of play for creating characters, building conflicts, and running games.

Classic Traveller: About those Ship’s Computers…

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For some reason many people think the displacement tonnage devoted to computers on starships reflects the massive computers of the 1970s. I have never understood this. Why would computers in the “Far Future” look like computers from the 1970s? Even in 1977 when I first bought Classic Traveller I never assumed the space required for computers was taken up with one large computer with spinning tape reels.

The displacement tonnage of the computer isn’t for “the computer” alone. It is the space devoted on the ship to the computer system.

Starships in Traveller travel parsecs away from facilities that can handle repairs of starships. They travel to worlds (often) where the technology level is far below the needs that might be required to repair their computer. Starships in Traveller can be attacked by other ships when entering into a new system. These attacks can damage any element of the ship — including the computer system. The computer system in Traveller starships handle many functions, but one of the most important is handling the Generate program or running the Navigation programs that allow the ship to track and navigate from star system to star system and arrive close enough in a system to the system starport that the ship can dock before running out of life support but not so close that the ship is destroyed by a world’s gravity well when coming out of jump space. The storage of the programs of data for these programs alone must be monstrous. If the computer system is damaged and there is no facility to repair it, there is no way to leave a system. A crew and passengers might not be going home for a long while… if at all. (Which is awesome for Traveller play, by the way! But not something most folks traveling on a starship would want to encourage.)

The volume dedicated to the computer, as I see it, constitutes redundancies of multiple computer systems, space for accessing those systems, armor around the computer systems to prevent damage from attacks, cushioning and packing to protect the system on hard landings.

I understand there are people who would, apparently, head off light years from the closest repair facilities into the coldness of space knowing they might take missile or laser fire damage or have a bad landing on a planet or end up in a system without any computer technology at all… and yet still want to attempt such travel with nothing but a laptop sitting on their ship’s console to get them there and back.

I am not one of those people. And I would never get on such a person’s person’s ship.

[As a side note: The term “Jump Tapes” never appears in the rules. The item is called a Jump Cassette, and whether this cassette holds a tape, crystals, gears, a magnetic pulse, or any other method of interacting with the ship’s computer is never defined…]

HALLOS SUBSECTOR: Notes for a Setting for Classic Traveller

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The subsector I’m working up is part of an empire in decay. The empire’s power is slipping away, both politically and economically, as civil wars across different sections of the empire have drained its focus. The influence of the empire on the subsector as a political or social entity is non-existent.

Instead, three noble families which have rules potions of the subsector are now scrambling to exert influence and exploit resources of worlds not yet explored. The families see themselves as both standard-bearers for the rich tradition of the imperial past, but also cut off from its support and making their own way forward as best they can.

Trade has been limited and focused on about on third to one half of the worlds in the subesctor. There are many “fly over” worlds, with ships focused on wealthy and high population worlds. Mortgages are backed by the noble families, with fealty and history with the families being a primary consideration for getting a charter on a ship, trade route, or resource exploration rights. A-class spaceports are owned by the noble families. Industrial espionage and sabotage is on the rise between the noble houses, affecting both starships and spaceports.

Common Noble House Tech Level is 9. Average Noble House Tech Level is A-B. Exceptional Noble  Tech Level is C. This, of course, limits the practical size of starships to less than 5,000 dTons. Higher tech levels may well be scattered around the subsector for the PCs to discover, interact with, and puzzle out.

There are many worlds with indigenous, native aliens, as well as settlements of humans. Some of the humans are settlers from the empire either invited by the noble families or seeking better opportunities. Others are from times before a previous rise and fall of interstellar society cycle and thus cut off socially and culturally from each other. (Again, trade has been limited to and focused on a few key worlds. Space lanes, jump cassettes, and other limiting factors from early CT rules are in effect.)

There is an indigenous and ancient faith revolving around psionic powers that has been isolated and quiet. It existed from the time before the last rise and fall cycle of civilization in the subsector (centuries ago). As a power vacuum opens up in the subsector the cult begins to make itself known. It begins recruiting from both the common populace and tries to insinuate itself in the noble houses as well. The teachings promise peace (of course) and a chance to avoid the coming possible crisis of an all out war by uniting the worlds of the subsector under one banner. Obviously none of the noble houses want this. But how to use the faith to their own ends, or stamp it out completely, all the while not being influenced by it is part of the stress the rules class is under.

I haven’t decided yet if the Player Characters will be centered on worlds from one of the ruling houses or have arrived from beyond the subsector. If they have already have served in the noble house’ military or services and have easy access to patronage and get us going. (Whether they remain loyal to the noble house over time is their business.) On the other hand I am tempted to have all PCs arrive in the subsector fresh. This makes the entire environment open to exploration and allows them to find their own way in terms of loyalty. I think this will be something to bring up with the players and ask them what they want.

Adventures will be a mix of political conflict fought out over resources, cold-war espionage and sabotage, as well as expiation and adventure on backwater worlds where all sorts of aliens, alien civilizations, and cultures can be found. (I should note that each of the three noble houses also has their own specific cultures as well.)

Most worlds are politically isolated, with no law enforcement between the stars apart from the efforts of the three noble houses protecting they limited influence on several star systems each. PCs will have varying degrees of safety from the law in illegal activity, depending on where their activities take place and who is backing them and providing cover. (Noble patronage can be very helpful in some circumstances.)

The tone and feel is a softer SF than I think many people expect from Traveller, with the SF elements serving as a backdrop and as McGuffins for adventure rather than and end in and of itself. Think Jack Vance’s Planet of Adventure and The Demon Princes books, E.C. Tubb’s Dumarest Books, Herbert’s Dune (just the first book), and a bit of Game of Thrones.

That’s the basic sketch I’m working from.

QELONG: Aakom Poison Tracker (Lamentations of the Flame Princess)

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My Players’ characters are heading off to the Qelong next week and I’ve spent my break from Refereeing by working up notes and prepping details for the expedition.

As I’ve noted before Qelong is dense and complex. I’ve taken some time to “unfold” the material in the book and prepare for an easier time running it.

One of the complex parts of the setting is the threat of Aakom Poisoning. If you’ve read the module you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t read it you don’t know what I’m talking about–but don’t worry because its too complicated to go into.

For those of you have an interest in running Qelong for your players but who have thought, “How the hell am I going to track the Aakom Poisoning?” I offer this following tracking sheet.

The deal is this:

I will print out several sheets, using one sheet per day the Player Characters travel through the Qelong valley. Each day of travel I will mark down any actions that incur Aakom points. (Each column heads notes the number of Aakom Points accumulated for different events.) At the end of the day I total the Aakom points for that day and then total the to the Aakom points for the entire expedition thus far.

The spreadsheet itself was sort of a no brainer. But I imagined what a mess the sheet would become after several days of adventure. (Truly, tracking Aakom Poisoning is a pain in the neck.) It was only after I realized I should have a new sheet for each day that I thought, “Okay, I can now track this and use the threat of the poison in a reliable and organized manner.”

I bring this up because my players are smart players and they love to have new problems and puzzles. I don’t want to hand-wave the effects of the poison. If the application of “scoring” the Aakom points is consistent and understandable they will figure out the patter and they will take action to solve the problem. Hence this detailed solution to tracking the poison.

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Fallen World Campaign [LotFP]–Twenty-Third Session

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– Or –
The Characters Finally Head Off to Qelong

Months have passed since we’ve played my Fallen Worlds campaign. I’m slammed with work and prepping my notes for the group’s journey to the Qelong Valley on an alternate Earth.

Other players have picked up the slack in the intermediate months, and I get to be a player for a while. We’re played a kick ass in short campaign set the world of The Last Airbender. We’re now playing in the world of Shadowrun using the HeroQuest rules.

But here’s a recap of the last session we played months ago!


Having cleaned out Graupher’s Keep of the creatures that had escaped from the menagerie and the interplaner creature that Graupher and his men had brought back in their travels to research and destroy, the Lamplighters took some time to sort through gathered treasures and magic.

The magic-user researched spells and set up a new lab in the keep. Two of the characters experimented with the power suits that they had retrieved from the slaughtered Carcosans they found dead in the remains of Death Frost Doom. One power suit was still locked, but they had a weekly chance to find the combination and finally pulled it off. Each power suit had unique abilities I had randomly rolled using the tables from Carcosa.

Carcosa describes the alien technology of the world in the style of Jack Kirby style art. So the players in 17th Century Europe have suits of armor in the style of the image above.

The Lamplighters also hired in workers to clean out the mess left over from the thousands of undead in the Turning Tower, as well as fortifying and repairing the compound as a whole.

Now, in the Session #22 recap I noted that I thought once the Players had found Graupher’s ship they would be heading off to the world of the Qelong Valley to find the Aakom they needed to free their friends who became trapped in Null Space while exploring the ancient Duvan’Ku catacombs under Munich. (It’s a long story… but if you read all the entries you’ll get the details. I realized I can’t keep recapping everything in every recap. It’ll just take too long! Short version: They need to go the Qelong Valley in an alternate dimension, recover the Aakom leaking from a cylinder that is poisoning the valley, travel to Carcosa using The World Stone, get to and enter the Spatial Transference Void in the city of Carcosa which will let them enter Null Space, rescue their friends, and use the Aakom to escape Null Space and return to earth!)

Instead, they decided to return to Bergenzel and clean it out once and for all. Okay, I thought, and then next week Qelong!

But no. After experimenting and cleaning up the keep they decided that since some of the spider cult members of Bergenzel had fled the town, the most likely place they would have gone to would be the Insect Cult located north of Karlstadt. They didn’t know about the Insect Cult, really, but months earlier they had found a map of Europe on the inside of a dead knight’s flesh marked with:

  • the death symbol of the Duvan’Ku which marked the temple from Death Frost Doom
  • an insect symbol which marked the Insect Cult from Better Than Any Man

The Players had decided back in the seventh session that they would be traveling to the bug mark on the map. You might recall that I prepped for Better Than Any Man, the Player Characters stopped in Munich while traveling north to Karlstadt, found out rumors of ancient Duvan’Ku catacombs under the streets of Munich, researched further, and stumbled intoThe God That Crawls. (Which I had moved from England to Munich.) In doing all this they promptly forgot about heading to Karlstadt, my prep was scrapped and they entered a terrific module that took us three sessions to clear out.

More things happened and their focus turned completely from the events to the north and they headed west in an effort to find an adventurer rumored to have a ship that could travel to different worlds so they could go rescue their friends trapped in Null Space. (Again, the recaps keep looping around. In part it is because I have remember for myself how all this stuff went down!)

The point is: Once they Players had declared they were going to Karlstadt I started the countdown that is a core element of Better Than Any Man. The Swedish Army was going to sweep down from Denmark across the Holy Roman empire whether the Player Characters went north or not… because it started and it was up to them to get back up there in time to find all sorts of treasures and adventures or not.

Well, they never went back. And the catalogue of events listed in Better Than Any Man took place as described over the ten days of the adventure–even if the Player Characters were not there to participate in the adventure!

The Players, of course, knew nothing about any of this. Nor did their characters who had spent that last two months in shrines and catacombs built by the Duvan’Ku or traveling through the time-distorted swamps of Bergenzel. By the time they headed back to Munich to see the treasures they had recovered they heard about the onslaught of the Swedish King but did not realize that the adventure that had been waiting for them had been wiped out. (I try to be honest about how the world is moving forward around the Player Characters, whether the Players are aware of it or not. This was one of those times!)

So: We gather for Session #23 and I’m thinking: “Okay, here we go to Qelong!” And the Players decided to go to where they saw the insect symbol on the map. And they had no idea the Insect Cult was wiped out by the Swedish Army (along with the witches of Karlstadt and so on.)

So I pull out Better Than Any Man. Because even though the main adventure sites have been destroyed by the Swedish army Better Than Any Man has a whole list of awesome random encounters I can use to generate content for tonight’s session. Since the area will still be war-torn and ruined almost every one of the encounters will still be viable.


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THE SIGN IN YELLOW

The Player Characters travel to Munich as they head for the Insect symbol on the map. They ask about rumors of the war, of the invasion by the Swedes, of anything to do about insects.

The find out that the Swedes sacked Karlstadt, sacked Würzberg, and killed many witched. They destroyed a tower that no one could see and the rivers ran with blood. They attacked a compound filled with monsters. Few men came out so they used explosives to seal it all up. The details are sparse. It is told more like exotic rumors and tales… but it is all true! This is the aftermath of Better Than Any Man–and the Lamplighters missed the party.

But, more pertinent, the Players hear rumors of dreams that have been haunting the citizens of Munich for weeks. People have been unable to sleep–or, rather, have been sleeping but do not feel as if they have slept. A figure in yellow robes haunts them. The Players begin to notice a strange symbol in yellow scattered on the walls of Munich. People feel that something is coming. That while they had feared what might happen once the Swedish army sacked the Catholic cities, this would be worse.


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THE WITCH’S HEAD

The group continues north. They pass Würzberg and see corpses of “witches” that hang from trees. And hear tales of the witch trials taking place. They travel on and I make a random encounter roll. They hear rumors of war elsewhere. But a large portion of the Swedish army has been disbanded after the cities were sacked and mercenary troops took their loot and went home.

They reach Karlstadt. They see the heads of the witches on pikes on the city’s wall. Again, this is the aftermath of Better Than Any Man. They have missed all the events. And yet, by playing out the events as they occurred we have new chances for unexpected adventures.

For example, the adventures decide they want to examine one of the witch’s heads. Why? I do not know exactly. But can I blame them?

Since their journey south along a road to investigate fallen meteorite–upon which they came across a corpse that was later revealed to have been killed by a doppelgänger from another planet come to study the human race–and all the things they had seen from that moment onward until now, would it be truly unreasonable to assume that investigating the decapitated head of a witch on a pike might not yield interesting information? Certainly it was a possibility that such a thing should be looked into. And so they did.

Note several things:

I had no idea the players would want to investigate a decapitated witch’s head. I put it there as a bit of color and to make clear that whatever had happened had happened and the situation had wrapped up.

It is not my place to tell the players there is nothing interesting to be found by investigating a decapitated witch’s head over a city gate. If this is something they want to do I let them do it. Remember, in this game I have no plot, I have no story. There is no place we are trying to get to, no climax I need to guide them toward. Whatever they choose to pursue is the story.

At this point they are providing material for me to use. Again: I have no story. The Players make rolls as they sneak around and try to investigate the head of a decapitated witch.

So they get to the head. It seems to be, I explain after they examine it, a decapitated head and nothing more.

They decide to steal it.

James Raggi once stated there was no need for a Call of Cthulhu insanity-style mechanic for Lamentations of the Flame Princess because after a while the Players would be having their characters do all sorts of crazy things with the characters all of their own volition. Guess he was right!

The group slips the head into one of their sacks and makes their way back out of the city before they are caught with the witch’s head.

They decide to head back south, making plans to travel to Italy to find sailors for their ship and their journey to one of the worlds Graupher discovered. And so they travel south, this imposing group of fifth level adventurers…

  • Werner, Prock a German mercenary
  • Adrian MacBride, a Scottish cleric
  • Vilfolk, a specialist noted for his facility with languages and knowledge of architecture
  • D’Antonio, a warrior from Spain
  • Rauk Bork, a specialist from Germany noted for his sneak attacks and tinkering
  • Anika, a magic-user who has gathered strange spells and items during her adventures

As the group travel the sack with the head begins to move. They open it and the head is speaking. They talk to it, and the witch’s head is trying to warn them.

“I made a pact with the Insect Gods,” the decapitated head says, “because I knew something far worse was coming.”

“What?” the characters ask.

“The gods of Carcosa,” the decapitated head says.

Anika, the group’s Magic-User, decides to place the head upon her staff as an imposing decoration. And so they continue south in this fashion. Because this is, after all, Lamentations of the Flame Princess

Some Thoughts on the Witch’s Head
I want to note here that I simply made up the head talking on the spot. I wanted to crank up the growing tension about the Carcosans and their invasion. I thought the dead witch would spit out a warning and that would be that.

In retrospect I would not have done it this way. I should have let the Players have their characters cast a spell of some sort or come up with some magical shenanigans to get information from the head if that’s what they wanted. I was excited to talk about what I was excited about. And certainly I’m allowed to share what I’m excited about.

But given that they stole the head of their own volition with no expectation it would provide information, I should have let them decide to press the matter further.

Not a big deal… but I did think about this after the session. A lesson learned.

But more: now that Anika has placed the head on her staff it is kind A Thing for me to deal with. Does it just keep talking? Spitting out omens? Or what?

I have decided the head will be an artifact of sorts. It actually isn’t the witch that spoke to them, but an avatar of the Insect God that hopes to manipulate the characters to its own desires. It will pose as the witch as long as it can to deceive them. It will have some powers it will offer to Anika to make its presence more palatable. But I haven’t worked those out yet.


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THE MERCENARIES

The group continues south, but is still with the territory of Better Than Any Man. I roll on the encounter table from the book. I roll an Encounter!

I roll on the Encounter Table to see what sort of encounter. I roll a 21. Rogue Mercenaries! Interesting! I hadn’t expected that!

I roll again to see if they are foreign mercenaries. 50% chance. They are! I read the description quickly:

these men are simply foreign mercenaries stranded in a strange land trying to survive with no idea how to get home through hostile territory…

Again, unexpected!

I decide these are Swedish Mercenaries who came over for the fight, pillaged, broke off from the army when payments came late. I roll to determine how many. 150 troops!

Huh. I have no idea how this is going to go.

I have each side roll for surprise. No one gets surprise.

I decide the Player Characters spot a patrol of Swedish Mercenaries–and the Swedes spot them. Rather than try to skirt the patrol the Players have their characters walk up to the patrol. Because here is a thing: The Player Characters are like Fifth Level now. In the setting we’ve built that is a big deal. They simply carry themselves differently. They are bad-asses who have seen the shit and when they approach a bunch of Level 0 Swedish Troops on patrol the troops take a step back. Because this strange crew of soldiers and specialists, as well as the strangely powerful looking cleric and the woman who is dressed in sturdy travel clothes but carries herself with the confidence of a woman who has looked the devil in the eyes and lived to tell about it walk like they are the last people you want to fuck with if you want to see another day.

I make a Reaction Roll, per the rules. I give a +2 to the roll since a) the mercenaries are without food or income and in no need to get into a fight they don’t need to get into, and b) the Player Characters look like bad-asses–so they probably won’t want to get into a fight.

The roll (if I remember correctly) was somewhere around the middle. The members of the patrol and the Player Characters trade pleasantries and trade doleful comments on the state of the war-torn world. The mercs explain their circumstances.

One of the Player Characters, Werner, asks to speak to their captain. The mercs are wary of this. But when Werner says it might involve employment they perk up and lead the six travelers to the camp.

Now, Werner is played by Eric. And Eric is a clever guy who comes up with clever plans. (Eric loves puzzles. He takes notes all the time and then goes back to them to put two or three pieces of clues together to make some solution unspool in dungeons.) So I can’t wait to see what is going to happen.

I check Better Than Any Man for more details about the mercenary company they are about to meet:

There will be 10d20 soldiers in all, with as many camp followers (cooks, wives— or “wives”, and children, etc.) in any such band, and the initial encounter will be with either a patrol of 3d6 soldiers (50% chance), 1d6 camp followers (40%), or with the main camp itself (10%).

Officer: Armor 16 (breastplate), Fighter Level 1d6, Movement 90’, 1 musket or sword attack for 1d8 damage, Morale 1d6+5.

Sergeant: Armor 14 (jacks or buff coats), Fighter Level 1d4, Movement 90’, 1 musket or sword attack for 1d8 damage, Morale 1d6+4. Has Strength 15.

Rest of the Troops: Armor 14 (jacks or buff coats), Level 0, Movement 120’, 1 musket or sword or pike attack for 1d8 damage, Morale 8.

Horses: Armor 14, 5 Hit Dice, Movement 240’, 1 hoof attack for 1d6 damage, Morale 8.

Camp followers: Armor 12 (unarmored), Level 0, Movement 120’, 1 dagger attack, Morale 6.

I roll a d20. A 15! So there is a large camp of 150 troops with as many followers.

The patrol leads Werner and the other Player Characters to the mercenary leader, who I quickly name Captain Boris Johansson. I roll the Reaction Roll secretly and tuck it away for later. I know how Johansson will react… but I want to wait until Werner makes his offer.

Werner offers the following: “Your men have no employer, no way to get home, and currently no food or work. We have need of soldiers. More than that, we have a keep that needs troops. And we have a village nearby that is deserted, but with home and lands that you could call your own. We’ll grant you the land and you can settle there and live there as long as you are under our employment.”

At first I didn’t know what Eric meant by all of this. And then I remember that the group had cleared out the village of Bergenzel not only of the spider cult but also the mist caused by the Time Cube that had held it frozen for decades. No one lived in the village anymore. And now it was a small village with buildings, land that was no longer a swamp, a church already built, and so on. He was offering them land that they had cleared. And silver for working for them. And I thought, “Okay! Good offer!”

On top of that I had already rolled a natural “11” on 2d6 on the Reaction table (“Talkative.”) So Captain Johansson is willing to at least entertain the idea.

Negotiations took place using the Hiring Retainers rules. We added up the modifiers, rolled 3d6 and the group got a 16 on the roll. Which meant a Loyalty of 10. (Very good!)

The company began packing up to head down to the Alps and the town of Bergenzel.


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THE INVASION OF EARTH BY CARCOSA

So, the next day the Player Characters and the Mercenary Company head off. The players are now in good shape. They thought they might be going to Italy to get sailors to man Das Forscher, but I decided the merc company would have a good number of men also familiar with sailing and could serve as marines.

As they traveled they discussed which world they might go to next. They had not yet told the merc company all the details of the adventures or plans, waiting until the right time. But they had made it clear their adventures would be wild and extraordinary… and that at the same time the rewards would be great. This pleased there mercenaries. And more than that, because of the rolls I had made I decided Captain Johansson was quite taken with the group. He could tell they were survivors and a hardy bunch and he was willing to hitch his fate to theirs.

Now what the Players did not know was that every day since they had left Graupher’s Keep I had been making a secret die roll to see when the invasion of the earth by the Yellow King of Carcosa would begin.

I mean, we knew this was going to happen sooner or later.

Kar-El, the Carcosan they had befriended months earlier had spelled it all out. And they had gotten enough information to know the Carcosans had been working on a method of expanding and re-working the Spatial Transference Void to allow a direct connection between Carcosa and Earth that would allow two way travel. (Currently the Spatial Transference Void only goes from Carcosa to Earth. This is why one needs the World Stone to go back to Carcosa.)

So…

The Players Characters and the merc company are heading south. They hear an amazing rumbling through the air. The ground trembles under their feet. It is something like an earthquake. And here I asked which characters might have experienced earthquakes before. Several Players describe when their characters have experienced earthquakes.

“This is something more,” I say. “Something different. It is as if the whole world has been touched. As if something has shifted in the earth itself, and not just under your feet.”

The look to the east and they see that there is a tear in the sky about a hundred miles away… the bright blue sky TEARING OPEN as a strange swirl of colors is visible. And from within it a MASSIVE BRIDGE OF STONE extending from the tear in space down toward the earth.

Upon the bridge they see, small but visible in formation, AN ARMY walking down the stone bridge.

And visible within the army, glowing with a presence that makes him more visible than he should be at this distance. He is a figure in yellow. He is, in fact, the King in Yellow, one of the avatars of Hastur of Carcosa. Some of the Players recognize this, others do not. I say no more on the matter.

I also do not add that Hastur is imprisoned under Carcosa and needs the sacrifice of millions to free himself. He has come to earth to make this happen. The population and means of war and execution exceed those of Carcosa and it here that he will found the altar that will free him–the planet earth itself.

Everyone is stunned by this sight. Many of the mercenaries drop to their knees and pray.

Werner says, “This is the enemy we fight. Come with us and we will defeat this army in their own kingdom before they can take our world.” Their plan is the same as it has been: To go to another world to find the Aakom, go to Carcosa, and manipulate the Spatial Transference Void. But now the stakes are bigger… not just to rescue their friends, but to destroy the Spatial Transference Void and seal the gap between Earth and Carcosa.

Now, Captain Johansson gets it right away… that this is a big fucking deal and if he can help he’s going to help. And he trusts the Lamplighters because of that Loyalty roll, so he’s all in. And he rallies the troops as best he can.

Eric says, “You know, given what they’re seeing they might not all want to come.” And I think, “True.”

So I make a roll to determine how many men Johansson can keep loyal to the company. And he is able to keep two-thirds of them on board to deal with this new, impossible threat. So the Lamplighters head off with 100 soldiers and their camp followers.

It is a several days walk and I make a roll each day. The Players do not know what the roll is for.

They make it back to Graupher’s Keep without incident. But on that day I roll again and I tell them, “You hear a sound like a terrible trumpet. A wind that rushes across the landscape rushes toward you. It rushes across the whole earth from east to west. You know this to be true as you know you own hands. And as the wind passes by both the Magic-User and the Cleric are uncertain about something. For it seems your sense of your magic in your thoughts and your god in your heart have been lost.”

They try to use their spells. Nothing happens.

The power and logic of Carcosa is exerting itself. The world is changing as the armies of the Yellow King march upon Europe.

The Player Characters and their mercenaries, which I have decided to dub Lantern Company, make haste and prepare to leave earth on their journey to another world and discover the means of stopping the invasion.

They have the coordinates from Graupher’s notes. Inside the underground lake in the Alps they turn the ship’s wheel per the combination written on the page of Graupher’s dream-induced drawings. There is a strange sound as the winds and waters of countless worlds rush by them…

And they are gone…

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.