Friday, February 20, 2015

Playing With Traveller

Or rather, "Playing Around With Traveller."

The last couple-three days I've been ditzing around with Classic Traveller (i.e. the original Little Black Books), a game I haven't played since...hmm, high school? Probably. This is one of those games I played with my buddy, Rob, who really wasn't into AD&D.

[ugh...Blogger's acting wonky today...hopefully, this post will stick]

I picked up the original three books (as PDFs) off Drive-Thru RPG as well as Book 4 Mercenary because A) I wanted to own these classic books, B) I wanted to take a look at how they were put together (their design and format and whatnot), C) I wanted to "explore the nostalgia," and D) I wanted to see if I could make them work for me...either on their own or as the basis for another project of mine. The "ditzing" (which I'll come back to in a moment) has actually been in lieu of working on the design for the new game...I just had to take a break and a breather.

[yes, it's a "space" game; no, I'm not ready to talk about it yet; yes, I like how it's developing and will hopefully get down to some serious work on it starting next week. Except that I might be doing this United Nations presentation thang (in English) for the Paraguayan government...we'll see if that happens and how much time THAT ends up taking]

SO...as sometimes happens when I need a breather, my mind starts wandering to the Space Wolves.

For those who aren't familiar with the game WH40K, the Space Wolves are one of the traditional space marine chapters that have been a part of the game "fluff" since its inception. They're kind of "space vikings" in power armor (you can see how that kind of thing would appeal to Yours Truly). While my own 40K armies have, for the most part, been on the side of Chaos (usually Khorne, sometimes Nurgle), in recent years my stance on the Wolves has softened. They're a lot less prone to cheesiness (army-wise) than they were back in the 2nd edition days.

Anyway, even though I stopped playing 40K back around 4th (3rd?) edition, I still have a couple codices for the Space Wolves lying around, both of which I took to Paraguay in the thought that there may be a fun little game to make out of a squad of "battle brethren." But I've been busy, and while my mind has often turned to the idea, it was only the last couple days I started considering possible systems as a starting point for a scratch side-project. And Classic Traveller was one of them.

[this really would be a lark, folks. I've written before that it would be difficult to do this kind of thing as a long-term RPG. More on the subject later]

I personally love the LBB format.
Hence the reason for picking up Mercenary (which includes systems for large-scale ground battles and such).

Welp, I spent a couple days reading the rules in Book 1 and Book 3 (not yet terribly interested in the starship thing) and was really liking what I saw. Seemed pretty clear, pretty well thought-out, pretty easy to use. Sometimes, first edition games are designed better and work better than later editions (I say this as someone who own Mongoose Traveller and thinks its pretty well done). So today, I started ditzing around with the random tables creating characters and systems/planets.

What an exercise in frustration!

Wow. I don't know how I managed to get such a competent character with Mongoose when the systems are so similar. That guy didn't exactly match my "concept" expectations, but he didn't suck rocks either. The dudes I've been creating using CT...even the ones with the expanded chargen system of Book 4...just aren't even in the same realm. It's not even like they're dying (well, my scout died...but that's the scout service for you)...they're just getting kicked from service long before they've developed into anything resembling competence.

I don't actually have a copy of Mongoose with me (back in Seattle), but if memory serves, the wild discrepancy between the chargen systems comes down to two main points:

#1 if you fail to reenlist in Mongoose you have the option of going into a different career (and possibly reinventing yourself. Kind of like real life (at least in the 21st century). Fifty years ago (perhaps), people might have changed jobs during their lives, but perhaps not careers (at least, not as frequently). To be fair, CT career paths are limited to "adventuring" types: armed forces, scouts, space merchants, and "other" (which seems to be the catch-all for criminal elements). I would hardly expect the marines to accept my enlistment at the ripe young age of 41 either! But in a universe of anti-aging drugs and technological enhancements, shouldn't there be a little less age discrimination?

[on the other hand, in a universe with trillions of inhabitants, perhaps Classic Traveller envisions a more disposable society where warm bodies are exceptionally easy to replace]

#2 in Mongoose, your character receives a number of bonus skills from a variety of sources. PCs receive skills from both their home world and from the GM depending on the style of campaign they intend to play. Also, random "life events" hep develop characters in a number of different ways (I believe both good and bad, but my memory is a bit hazy).

The half dozen characters I rolled up this morning could have benefitted greatly from either of these Mongoose additions. My "criminal" character (from the Other category) ended up with two terms of service, most of UPP under 7, and a single skill (Bribery 1) to show for his career. Blah! That was the point I decided to stop, after half a dozen likewise disappointing PCs.

The planets (I created a random "home world" for each of my PC attempts) were equally disappointing. For whatever reason, I ended up with a lot of low tech water worlds sporting small populations and a conspicuous lack of star ports, and where a population of hundreds ends up with "rival competing governments" (the neighborhood watch groups are drawing up sides!). I don't know...there's some sort of weird, cascading effect when creating planets where a particular number rolled for one planetary stat skews the roll for the next...and yet the modifiers for tech levels are strangely affected.

[my criminal's planet? It was yet another water world with a dense, tainted atmosphere. Its population was smaller than Asuncion, had a law level of 0 ("no prohibitions"), a government level of 0 ("no government structures; family bonds predominate") and a tech level of 13. Grav craft, powered battle armor, maxed out computers, etc. -- all on a tiny barbarian planet of floating "tribes." Not sure which hut-raft they're using to manufacture the star drives]

If you can't tell from the tenor of the post, I'm disappointed. The system...which seems perfectly set-up to help players/GMs and even facilitate "solo play" (something you really don't see much of anymore)...leaves more than a bit to be desired. It's own randomness, while intriguing, seems to beg for "fudging," both to help develop characters for play and to develop a setting worth playing in.

Yes, yes...some folks will say I'm terribly unimaginative regarding the setting stuff, and others will point out that Miller points out Referees are free to use these tables as an aid, retaining the freedom to  invent one's own worlds as desired. Got it. That still doesn't help with the lousy character creation. I can understand that it may certainly fit with the setting that my 22 year old marine was kicked to the curb with nothing but skill level 1 in gun combat and "recruiting." Fine. Let's start our adventuring career now...my character is young, ambitious, and full of fire. Unfortunately, there are no rules in CT for my 22 year old to acquire any more skills or abilities. I maxed out my career at 22? Okay...but I maxed out my LIFE, too? Give me a break!

[maybe this is the reason for the prevalence of psionics in CT's human population?]

I was quite at ease with Mongoose Traveller's lack of progression/advancement for characters (it has a couple spot rules about studying or something with a bunch of time and money), mainly because the ease of staying in the chargen process made it easy to develop a competent character. The real restriction was age limits (how old and decrepit do you want to allow yourself to get before striking off in your Free Trader?). But Classic Traveller is a hard one. It really is. Playing it "as written" would be at least on par with some of those Old School games that are classically considered to be "tough" on new players: like 1st edition Stormbringer and Holmes Basic D&D or (Revised) Heroes Unlimited with random power type determination. It's interesting, and challenging (which is good) but has the potential to be really frustrating, too.

I was frustrated just playing around with it.

26 comments:

  1. Properly run, in CT skills are bonuses, and people without skills can still do things with some competence. That said, people preferred skills to indicate competence, so things changed by the time Book 4 came out, and changed even more in MegaTraveller.

    However, you are just wrong when you say that there is no way for your character to get more skills. It just takes a long time. Game years. Of course, it took game years for your character to get that one skill, too.

    The thing is, CT is a different sort of game than RPGs became. It's a lot harder to play now because there are all of these assumptions that have grown up in the hobby. Hang out in CT groups on G+ or at CT blogs to get some ideas on how it is supposed to work.

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    1. “It just takes a long time. Game years.”

      In practice, though, if you’re doing a lot of travelling, the weeks can click by pretty fast.

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    2. @ Faol (and Robert):

      Which book of the CT trilogy discusses gaining additional skills AFTER character creation. I probably just missed it.

      I realize that level 0 is still "competent," but other than weapon skills, I don't think characters are explicitly level 0 in everything else. Perhaps this was clarified in a later CT supplement?

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    3. Book 2, pp. 42-43. I believe the heading is “Experience” (though it doesn’t really seem to fit).

      I have a summary here:
      http://web.fisher.cx/robert/rpg/traveller/experience.html

      Skill level zero eliminates the penalty for being unskilled. The way I play it, even zero is a (half) step above competent for most skills. I’m only going to call for a roll under extenuating conditions or for something that really requires a specialist. And I’ll set target numbers lower than I would in a game that gives characters more skills and higher skill levels.

      I don’t know how “by the book” or not that may be. It is just how I do it.

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    4. @ Robert:

      Ha! Thanks! As I wrote above, I hadn't yet bothered to read Book 2 ("Starships") thinking it only had info pertaining to starships or something. Silly me!
      ; )

      Having now read the section, it appears to actually have MORE self-improvement rules than the Mongoose version (though I may well be misremembering). A little slow, a little clunky, but it IS there...I especially like the roll to see if folks can remain "dedicated" to a program (something most RPGs fail to take into account...and quite realistic).

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  2. When I play cT, I treat a character with no skills as competent. Even an 1 in a skill indicates that the character is a specialist in that area. Which I have to do with a skill-based system anyway, because otherwise they drive me crazy.

    I recommend picking up Starter Traveller too. It does not have everything that is in Books 1–3, but it has some examples that clarify some things.

    Actually, I recommend getting the classic Traveller CD direct from Far Future, because it is just too good of a deal.

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  3. for that odd world you created, you might have to get creative with the die resultd. For example, maybe the low population high tech world is the result of discovered ancient alien civilization. The atmosphere is tainted because the aliens destroyed themselves long ago, leaving their tech to be discovered by the new inhabitants

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  4. i always catch meyself playing with different methods of world generation, the baseline just doesn't go wide or detailed enough for me.

    when we payed years back we didn't kill characters that died in creaation they were just done with charcter generation and got no mustering out benefits. Characters that mustered out or were even kicked out could just try another branch to develop further (the galaxy is a big place ).

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  5. i always catch meyself playing with different methods of world generation, the baseline just doesn't go wide or detailed enough for me.

    when we payed years back we didn't kill characters that died in creaation they were just done with charcter generation and got no mustering out benefits. Characters that mustered out or were even kicked out could just try another branch to develop further (the galaxy is a big place ).

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  6. for that odd world you created, you might have to get creative with the die resultd. For example, maybe the low population high tech world is the result of discovered ancient alien civilization. The atmosphere is tainted because the aliens destroyed themselves long ago, leaving their tech to be discovered by the new inhabitants

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  7. I failed to mention that Supplement 4: Citizens of the Imperium has some additional “basic” careers. I like to use them.

    I don’t use any of the “advanced” careers from books 4–7. They get more skills and arguably some of the skills are not as broad. So I find they don’t mix well with “basic” careers. You can boost the number of skills “basic” careers get to compensate, but I’d be more likely to look at adapting some stuff from T5 if I weren’t happy with the “basic” careers.

    And, yeah, I let characters attempt to enlist in another career when they fail an enlistment or reĆ«nlistment roll. Characters who haven’t completed any terms yet can always choose the draft, but they aren’t forced into it until they’ve failed to enlist in every career.

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  8. You say your sample characters were kicked out (Failed reenlistment) before they "developed into anything resembling competence". Fair enough, a lot of characters end up with 1, 2 or 3 terms. It depends on your threshold for 'competence'. By the rules, a character of any age with Pilot-1 skill can get a job as a starship pilot, with a salary of 6,000 a month. That's at skill-1. The CT rules count the first skill as professional competence.
    Have a look at this post from the Space Cockroach: http://spacecockroach.blogspot.com/2014/07/regarding-skills-in-classic-traveller.html
    and then my follow-up post http://ancientfarfuture.blogspot.com/2014/08/casual-encounter-fenton-tukachevski.html Perhaps this will help with the understanding of 'competence' in CT. If the Mongoose version is more your thing, great; but MgT and CT are different. As Faoladh pointed out, CT is different from more modern games. But it is still very playable.

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    1. @ Library Bob (and others):

      I understand that even 1 level in a skill equals professional level. The problem is the exceptional randomness of skill acquisition coupled with A) shortness of career, B) lack of critical skills (or the ability to select them).

      Here's a marine who ended up with Gun Combat 1, Recruiting 1, and Forward Observation 1. Here's a scout who, after three terms, still had no "pilot" skill. Here's another guy with Gambling 1, Gun Combat 1, and Zero-G after four terms.

      Pilot-1 is required to fly any interstellar craft. Only three careers have the ability to learn Pilot, and then only if they have an Education of 8+...at which point their chance is 1 in 6. Navigation (required for any 200t+ vessel) is the same except that merchants have a 1 in 6 chance of learning it (1 in 6 per term) even if their Education is under 8.

      It is highly possible, given the inherent difficulties of the system, that you could end up with a group of PCs who have no ability to actually "travel" without hiring a full crew of competent NPCs to perform engineering (right up there with navigation for difficulty), computer programming, etc. I'm speaking of the game using the Rules As Written, of course. There are plenty of ways to house rule the thing...but then why not simply play a later version (like Mongoose).

      I'm just saying I was a bit disappointed by what I found in Classic.

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    2. Here’s the party my group rolled up.

      http://web.fisher.cx/robert/rpg/traveller/log.html

      (Those zero level skills are “hobbies”. I let everyone pick one.)

      I think they managed to cover everything needed to operate the ship. And they still hired a pilot anyway. (Which ended up making things interesting.)

      Of course, starting with a ship is far from guaranteed and acquiring one is not easy. Travelling as often happens on other people’s ships in my experience.

      Figuring out how to get things done with the skills you have or how to pay/convince an NPC to loan you skills you don’t have has always been part of the game. (And only in the times when skills are really needed for what you want to do.)

      Of course, no one can argue that you were disappointed. I think we’re all just trying why these things aren’t disappointing for us.

      (Although the real answer may be that many of us started playing cT before we had many preconceptions for it to fail to meet. šŸ˜„)

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    3. Another reason may be that folks who've been playing CT for years have already added their own adjustments "to taste." I note that several of the characters in your log have careers other than those in the basic book (noble, doctor, etc.).
      : )

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    4. Yeah.

      For what it is worth, though, the Supplement 4 careers are very much in-line with the Book 1 careers.

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    5. Wait, you can't have a Scout with no Pilot skill. They get a level for free on enlistment.

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    6. Also, it is possible to travel by purchasing passage on someone else's ship. The group that doesn't have a ship of its own can be quite an interesting one.

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  9. There's a table in the character generation section called Automatic Skills. All members of the Scouts get Pilot-1 in their first term. Only the Other career doesn't have an Automatic skill award. Some of the characters you described don't sound like they have all the skills they should - the guy with Gambling, Gun Cbt and Zero-G should have at least two more skills, maybe more if he's gotten commissioned and promoted. With commission and promotion even a 1-term character will have 4 skill levels, plus an Automatic skill or two.
    Creating characters (or planets) in CT is so simple and quick that if the first few you roll up don't suit or make sense, bank them as NPCs and roll on until you get one you like. But in the end, if MgT works for you, go with it. I don't want an edition war - play to have fun.

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    1. @ Library Bob:

      Yes, of course you're right (about the Scout)...which only makes sense given the concept of that career. When I wrote that, I wasn't looking at the auto skills.

      But the other guys' were made using the Merc rules (which gives possible skills more-or-less on a yearly basis, rather than a "per term"), and some of these were stat bonuses rather than skills. As it was, they all ended up with the majority of their stats at or below average (7).

      This isn't about an edition war thing. I've owned Mongoose for awhile, but have played just as much CT in the past (or more), and perhaps I was luckier with my character rolling back in the day (or perhaps my GM was more forgiving). They played pretty much the same from what I can tell. However, this is the first time I've owned the CT rules and really "taken them out for a test drive." I was a little disappointed by the result...that's all.

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  10. Well, there's quite a bit of discussion here. Yeah, I can see why, when you approach it like later games (where characters can only do the things on their sheet), CT might look a little spare. The big thing you seem to have a problem with is the highly random nature of character creation. That was something that a lot of people had a problem with, which is why it was fixed in MegaTraveller to a great extent by adding a lot more "cascade skills", where the person rolling up the character had a lot more choice in terms of which specific skills they'd have. Still, since skills in CT are not usually requirements, but are instead bonuses, it's not as important.

    I should add that this discussion and the things that it is making me think about are really helpful to me right now, since I am working on a pulp SF game, heavily inspired by Northwest Smith, Lensman, and Flash Gordon, with a touch of Krull, Barsoom, Star Wars, and Dune.

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    1. @ Faol:

      I'm glad it's helpful!

      I'm certainly not opposed to randomness in character creation...not even with regard to skills. There's just some slight tweaks to the overall implementation I'd prefer. Mongoose does a good thing (IMO) with their additional "group skills."

      Another idea would be to have a choice of skills available based on random roll...for example, a roll of a "2" indicates a "combat skill" and allows the player a choice from a number of weapon options (blade, brawl, gun, gunnery, etc.). A "3" might indicate a selection from the "starship" table (pilot, nav, engineer, computer).

      Different careers paths might have weighted tables ("starship" on a 3-4 for scouts, for example). All careers might eceive a choice of "attribute upgrade" on a roll of "1."

      In other words, keep it random but narrow down the wild divergence. Just an idea.
      ; )

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  11. "Another idea would be to have a choice of skills available based on random roll"

    Yeah, that's the solution MegaTraveller used, with the large number of "cascade skills". That included things like "Physical", which was a +1 to Str, Dex, or End.

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  12. Huh, when my friends and I "played" Traveller, we mostly did character generation because we thought it was so entertaining. I still go back to my CT books and play the mini-game of char-gen because I get a kick out of it...

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  13. I was going to recommend Megatraveller as it does a lot to address your disappointments however that might be missing your central theme. You got CT because you wanted CT right? The suggestion of Starter Traveller (or the Traveller Book) is a good one as it (they) are like a amended version of CT rather than a new version. I can't recall if Book 1 in later printing has the 2 skills per term for scouts and Gun Combat 0 for PC's but they are examples of some of the ideas added to CT before MT showing GDW was aware players weren't enamored with character generation. Also Supplement 4 is one of the best expansions including adding bows and crossbows so you can play D&D in space!

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    1. @ Warren:

      I've got Terminal Space for my D&D in the outer dark antics.
      : )

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