Traveller: The Joy of Prep

Over at ST Wild Shannon’s asked about how much prep people do, which is a timely question because this past weekend I’ve been beavering away at the prep for my upcoming Traveller campaign.

The answer to “How much do you prep, Arthur?” is short and simple: I prep until I cease to find it fun to do so. Ultimately, I’m not getting paid to GM, don’t intend to sell the results of my prep to people for money, and have no plans to run it for random strangers at a con or something, so I feel entirely justified in treating the purpose of prep as a hobby rather than a profession. In fact, I would say it can be an aspect of play which, whilst it’s not a substitute for actual game sessions (because it’s a very different kind of play) can be enjoyable in its own right – and when it ceases to be enjoyable is when I cease doing it.

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Space Opera Command Performance

So, talked to the Monday night group yesterday evening and a consensus quickly formed for a space opera travelogue sort of game for my next campaign – and since one of the players is particularly keen on the Traveller system it looks like we’ll be going with that.

I said in the discussion on my previous post that Traveller tends a bit more towards hard SF than space opera typically does, but that said I don’t think this is too much of a problem. Giving the SRD for the Mongoose version a quick going-over, it looks like they’ve done a reasonable job of offering alternatives to the baseline technical assumptions (they offer up different varieties of FTL travel, for instance, whereas previous editions had ye olde Jump drive hardwired in, and this time around it seems computers aren’t assumed to be massive room-sized affairs with teeny tiny hard drives). On top of that, the player who really loves Traveller seems keen on playing an engineer so a bit more emphasis on the technical details can’t hurt.

In terms of campaign premise I think I’ll have the PCs be bridge crew on a large starship as opposed to the entire crew of a small starship – partly because I kind of fancy ripping off Star Trek as much as humanly possible, partly because this means they’re effectively toting around a massive supply of replacement PCs in the event of fatalities, partly because giving them a big powerful ship with escape pods makes me happier about sending them into starship combat than if they were in a dinky ship with no escape pods. (I am mildly tempted to have the players roll up two PCs – a bridge crew officer with multiple tours of duty under their belt, and a weedy redshirt for security/suicide missions/comical random killing purposes.) I’d have to tackle the whole “why don’t they send a big mob of security crew to overwhelm the baddies?” question, but Trek has been doing that for decades so the problem clearly isn’t insurmountable.

Mongoose have actually put out multiple space opera-themed settings for Traveller (alongside the classic Third Imperium setting, which despite the whole empire-in-space premise is built along more hard SF lines), but I’m not sure I’ll want to run with any of the official sourcebooks. The Babylon 5 sourcebook they put out for it apparently isn’t brilliant and occasionally makes bizarre rule calls (Minbari have penalties to their social stats? Centauri get an intelligence bonus? Narn can’t be diplomats? Did these guys even watch the same show as me?), whilst Reign of Discordia a) uses the term “Discordia”, which has grown to be a red flag to me as far as geek culture artefacts go, and b) doesn’t feel very pointful – I mean, if I’m not dealing with an iconic space opera universe which is going to have some resonance with the players I may as well be homebrewing as far as I’m concerned. There’s actually a Prime Directive supplement coming out soon – the Prime Directive universe being an odd quasi-official offshoot of the Star Trek universe that seems to consist of the original series plus new background material cooked up for the Star Fleet Battles wargame – but that’s not out yet, and despite the added wrinkles that come in via the new background bits I’m not sure I want to run with something as familiar as the Trek setting.

So, current plan is to homebrew a setting and see how that goes. The nice thing about Traveller is that it gives you a lot of nice systems to procedurally generate sectors of space and star systems and generally goes out of its way to make prep fun in its own right so I’ll be going in with a bit more in the way of preparation than the Unknown Armies game. I’m currently pondering whether to go fully original with the setting or set it in the Babylon 5 universe with the players as the crew of one of those exploration ships which show up in one episode tasked with exploring a frontier region of the galaxy. Possibly in an alternate timeline where, after the end of the series and the fall of the Psi Corps which they built up to for the whole of the show and then dealt with in a spin-off novel afterwards, Sheridan is indicted for his horrible war crimes (namely, the use of innocent coma victims as suicide bombers) and the Interstellar Alliance falls apart (since it’s so closely bound up with Sheridan’s personal political agenda that with him discredited, the whole idea is mildly discredited), because then there’d be a universe which gets back to the slightly meatier, more tense and less creepily Messianic politics of the early series without the Shadows or the Vorlons cramping anyone’s style.

Unknown Armies: It’s Better To Burn Out Than It Is To Rust

Shannon over at ST Wild has recently done a series of posts about ending campaigns, which became relevant yesterday as I decided to put my Unknown Armies campaign out to pasture.

Without belabouring you with an in-depth discussion of the action of the campaign (not least because, if you’re doing it right, a summary of a good Unknown Armies game should resemble the ramblings of a deeply disturbed and highly irrational conspiracy theorist), we left the party in a situation where conceivably we coud go back to explore further adventures of theirs, but at the same time if we never go back to that particular campaign the ending ought to be broadly satisfying. As I mentioned in an earlier post this leg of the campaign started with a bit of an info-dump, and the events of the last few sessions seem to represent a tipping point where the PCs have gone from fumbling amateurs feeling their way through the occult underground and become proactive agents therein; in the last session they also inflicted a bruising defeat on their major adversary, something which is easy enough to hand the players in Unknown Armies because more or less any activity could have secret magical meaning. (In this case, the players had essentially been planning to turn their concerts into encoded magical rituals for some time, so it was a simple matter of deciding that this would in fact work). Retrospectively, even though the concert itself didn’t present much in the way of challenges to them, I think it was a nice way to wrap things up because there were interesting parallels to the first few sessions of the campaign (in that the start and end of the campaign both involved assassination attempts at concerts in derelict buildings held with a hidden occult agenda).

That said, I ended the campaign here only partly because it seemed a thematically appropriate place to stop: I also had hit a point where I realised if I kept pushing on the campaign would fall to bits. The campaign wasn’t perfect, and I knew I could only run it in the way I have been for so long before things come crashing down; better to shoot it down in a blaze of glory than wait for the rot to really set in. In particular:

  • I’d been running the campaign in a high-improvisation, low-to-zero prep style for some time, to the point where I didn’t actually have any NPC stats beyond a vague idea of where their competencies lay. This worked fine back when the game was about weird stuff happening to the PCs and weird people emerging from the shadows to try to manipulate them but isn’t going to pass muster now. Whilst I could pull my socks up and go back and produce all that material I was too lazy to nail down earlier, it’d be a lot of work – a much bigger task than if I’d done the sensible thing and filled that stuff in as I went along.
  • Likewise, I realised that I greatly prefer using the various magical powers you can get in UA as the basis for weird shit that happens to PCs as opposed to weapons in an actual fight between the PCs and enemy factions, not least because it’s genuinely unfair to actually use any of these powers in an honest attempt to do harm to the player characters. Plutomancers, for instance, can force you to roll against Mind or shoot yourself in the head by spending a few Minor charges. This is cool if used against an NPC, mildly appalling if turned against a player character – and yes, I could write new powers for all the occult-empowered NPCs, but again, kind of a lot of work.
  • The Monday night group has a rotating GM arrangement where each of us that GMs gets to run their games in 4-session blocks, and I hadn’t done a brilliant job of adapting to that format. It wasn’t too much trouble to give each of my individual 4-session blocks a decent structure so that we stopped each time at an appropriate stopping point and the players generally seemed to feel something important and substantive had happened in each block so far; the problem I really had was that I was reaching the point where it was only possible to do that by ignoring a lot of the strands running through the campaign. Lesson here is that whilst it is possible to run a highly mystery-based campaign in this manner, having multiple parallel mysteries running at once isn’t viable in the 4-session block format: people invariably get details muddled because it’s 8 weeks or more since they last gave their full attention to the situation – or even worse, straight up ignore stuff either because they forgot it exists or they simply don’t prioritise it.

On top of that, change is in the air in the group anyway: one participant is stepping up to the plate with a Houses of the Blooded game, another is stepping down from the rotation for a bit to work up a new Technocracy-based World of Darkness game, a third is switching from a 1920s Call of Cthulhu to a modern-day one, and so on. In short, we all seem to be in the mood for a bit of a shake-up, and since like most GMs I have more campaign ideas than I ever have time to run why not jump in on that?

In particular, we’ve had a period in the group where for a while we’ve all been essentially running modern day occult/horror games. (Well, the Cthulhu game was set in the 1920s, but that’s still in spitting distance of the present day.) It might be good all round to try and be a bit more diverse, if only because it’ll help the unique selling points of each person’s campaign be that more prominent.

Personally, I think something comparatively light-hearted and adventurous would both work well in the 4-session block format. One player has suggested a traditional fantasy game, which I admit to having a hankering for, whilst part of me is tempted to go full-on space opera; whichever I go with, I’m leaning towards adapting Chaosium’s deluxe Basic Roleplaying brick or True20 to it, partly because those are both systems which I can do prep for comparatively quickly. Moreover, both straight-up D&D fantasy and space opera are genres where all the players are going to have a fair idea going in on how the world works and what your capabilities are and what you can expect to run into, which should help the players get proactive from the word go compared to a modern day occult game in which part of the point is the players don’t know what’s out there and how the metaphysic works.

I will, of course, keep you posted on developments, but it probably won’t be until early 2013 at this point.