The Utilitarian Mongoose

So let’s say you’re running Mongoose’s version of Traveller – the first edition, because you’re not enough of a schmuck to buy an edition of Traveller that doesn’t have basic ship building rules in the core rulebook. You have your core book, you might have the referee screen (portrait orientation panels, ugh, but at least there’s a nice “view through a starship viewscreen” aesthetic to it), what are the other tools you might be resorting to frequently?

Well, there’s every chance you’d also be looking at their supplement line. With a plain aesthetic and a numbering scheme reminiscent of the little black books of Classic Traveller, a few of them (like Dynasty) offered substantial additions to the Traveller rules, but most of them consisted of highly utilitarian compilations of stuff.

For instance, for those who don’t have time to design an entire galaxy’s worth of starships, the three starship supplements – Supplement 2: Traders and GunboatsSupplement 3: Fighting Ships, and Supplement 10: Merchants and Cruisers – offer all you could want, with various worked examples of a wide range of ship types and some lovely deckplans. (Fighting Ships concludes with an Imperial battlestation of truly vast proportions, whose audacity is just a joy to contemplate). The first two of these have some nice artwork of the ships which in their simple style give me fond memories of looking at spaceship artwork in library books back as a little Arthur; sadly, Merchants and Cruisers instead has somewhat ugly CGI of the ships instead, and loses some of its charm as a result.

Another set of worked examples was Supplement 7: 1001 Characters. Whereas “masses of NPC stats”-type supplements had been produced for Traveller before, these mostly consisted of statlines produced by a spreadsheet – useful in days when everyone didn’t have computers handy, near-useless otherwise. The modern update of the concept here is somewhat more useful, with various instant NPCs with appropriate statlines, names, brief backgrounds and, most usefully of all, a clear archetypal niche for them in bold. Flip to the appropriate chapter, look at the bold text until you spot something that suits the sort of NPC you want to deploy, and then bombs away. It’s a great example of how even with an extremely simple, bare-bones layout you can with a little thought make something extremely useful in actual play.

Other supplements added additional bits to the rules; Supplement 4: Central Supply Catalogue not just provided lots of and lots of equipment, but also guidelines on adapting equipment (such as coming up with higher tech level equivalents of lower-tech gear). My main complaint about it is that it’s a bit gunbunny-tastic – there’s masses and masses of weapons and armour detailed but comparatively slimmer sections on non-combat requipment. Supplement 5-6: The Vehicle Handbook was a replacement for two somewhat shonky earlier vehicle supplements, and provided a fairly simple vehicle design system which could model everything from a bicycle to a tank – quite nice, though I am not sure why you would ever bother to come up with detailed game stats for a bicycle. Supplement 11: Animal Encounters expanded on the animal encounter rules in the core book.

Supplement 8: Cybernetics might just be the hidden star of the supplement line. Yes, it’s a shopping list of cyberware – but more significantly, it offers detailed rules on cyberware and reworked career profiles oriented towards a cyberpunk setting and rules for handling cyberspace. Between these components, it offers all you need to run 1980s-1990s style cyberpunk in Traveller – decades late, maybe, but a welcome filling of a gap that GDW left open really absurdly long.

Supplements like this aren’t flashy, aren’t sexy, but are extremely useful for running any tabletop RPG – sometimes you need those worked examples handy when there just isn’t the prep time to do it yourself. One could wish that more games remembered the utility of such things.

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Farewell to Loren Wiseman

Just got the news via Tenkar’s Tavern that Loren Wiseman has passed away.

Wiseman is mostly significant to gamers as part of the old GDW team, where he co-designed games like Twilight: 2000 (which has rather fallen out of fashion but was the top post-apocalyptic RPG back in its prime) and En Garde! (a very, very early post-D&D RPG – in fact, it’s sufficiently early that it barely resembles a recognisable RPG, though its rather mechanistic and limited rules do make it nicely suited for play-by-email purposes).

He’s mostly famed, though, as a major contributor over the years to Traveller, both during its original run at GDW and as the mastermind behind the GURPS Traveller line at Steve Jackson Games.

I’ve gone on the record before as saying that there’s probably too many official system conversions for Traveller out there, but out of all of them, GURPS Traveller was easily the best. (Indeed, I suspect its success was the main motivation behind many of the other Traveller conversions over the years – and part of me wonders whether Mongoose would have even taken a punt on Traveller had the GURPS line not kept it fresh and asserted the Third Imperium as a still-viable setting.) A large part of this came down to the excellent setting material for it – useful stuff whether you were using GURPS or one of the existing Traveller systems or some conversion of your own design.

One useful decision made was to set the GURPS line in an alternate timeline where the Rebellion that kicked off the MegaTraveller setting never happened. This did allow the GURPS line to distance itself from controversial setting changes that had divided the fanbase in the past, but it also posed the challenge of making the setting seem like a place you could have dynamic, exciting adventures in despite the rather static nature of the Imperium. At its best, the GURPS line solved that problem by providing strong emphasis on traditional flashpoints like the Solomani Rim and the Spinward Marches, along with really strong planetary writeups which remembered that each planet should in its own right provide a jumping-off point for adventure; underpinning this seems to have been an understanding that the adventure in Traveller isn’t so much in the galactic-scale macropolitics (which by its very nature is too vast and glacial for any individual adventuring party to really expect to make much of a dent on) and more on local-scale tensions.

Regardless of whether this represented Wiseman’s position all along and he’d just been overruled back in the GDW days, or a lesson painfully learned during the decline and fall of GDW, this approach to Traveller offered a refreshing clean break from the galaxy-wide revolutions and disasters that GDW had become fond of during the later phase of the line, and the GURPS line – and Wiseman – deserve a toast from all Traveller fans for that.

With a career as long as Wiseman’s, of course, GURPS Traveller only represents the tip of the iceberg. He also coauthored The Traveller Adventure – a campaign so well-regarded that Mongoose more or less reprinted it with minimal changes to update it for their version of the system rather than making extensive changes to it. And I especially want to pick out Book 0: An Introduction to Traveller as an important contribution of his (excerpts were later incorporated into Starter Traveller, a beginner’s version of Classic Traveller, and The Traveller Book, a complete-in-one-book version of the core Classic Traveller rules).

This was a Classic Traveller supplement that was originally one of the booklets you got in the Deluxe Traveller core set, and represents perhaps the most extensive “What are RPGs, and what’s the deal with this specific RPG?” piece ever written for a major game line up to that point (and for a good while afterwards at that). I particularly like the fact that it goes into fine detail about the tasks of the referee – a vitally important concept for newcomers to get their heads around – as well as providing an example of play which reads like a real session with real personalities to the players, as opposed to the rather sterile style some examples of play can be presented in. The booklet as a whole is especially worth revisiting in terms of the level it pitches the material at; it’s an excellent example of how you can present this stuff patiently and carefully to an interested audience without talking down to them or making them feel like you’re treating them like a confused child, and I would recommend a quick reread of it to anyone who’s about to undertake the task of writing a “What is roleplaying?” essay.

(In a classic example of Far Future Enterprises making business decisions that make me go “bwuh?”, they’re selling PDFs of Book 0 for $4.99. Come on, Miller – there’s no substantive system stuff in there, it’s an introductory text, give the PDF out for free to tantalise the audience.)

So, if you saw the news that Loren had died on the grapevine and weren’t aware of what he’d produced, that’s just a little cross-section there of the stuff that stood out to me. Please send kind thoughts in the direction of his friends and family.

Why I Love Mongoose Traveller, Why I Won’t Get the New Edition

As with many games that have been revised and reissued regularly since the 1970s, Traveller is in the precarious position of having a rather startling number of different versions of it available. This is particularly the case if you consider that actually the term Traveller refers, in the minds of many, to two connected and distinct things: there’s Traveller in the sense of the game systems that have carried that name, and then there’s Traveller in the sense of the Third Imperium campaign setting which became the default setting of the game reasonably early on in the lifetime of its original incarnation (known today as Classic Traveller).

As far as the setting goes Marc Miller, its creator and custodian of most of the old Game Designers’ Workshop RPG back catalogue, has been very generous with the licensing rights over the years, so if you want to play in the Third Imperium there are an embarrassment of choices available. Hero system? There’s a Traveller for that. D20? There’s a Traveller for that too. GURPS? Why, some people swear that GURPS Traveller is their absolute favourite presentation of the Third Imperium! I admit to losing track of which of all these variants are still in print, but I do remember getting the impression a while back that the answer was probably “too many” – although each licence probably gave Miller a nice injection of royalties, at the same time I do wonder whether they have been a double-edged sword: each successful adaptation can only have fragmented the fanbase further (with a big question mark as to whether it grew the fanbase sufficiently to compensate for that), whilst each unsuccessful one can’t have done much to build the fanbase further.

Continue reading “Why I Love Mongoose Traveller, Why I Won’t Get the New Edition”

What’s Up With My Traveller Article?

Seriously, what gives?

My article about Traveller character generation gets a crazy amount of traffic. As in daily clicks direct to that page. The majority of pageviews I get are just for the main page, but when it comes to specific posts, the Traveller character generation article gets around 250% of the direct views its closest competitor enjoys.

I’m flattered that people like the article, but what’s up with that? What is it specifically about that one article that you guys enjoy so much more than my other posts, and what can I do to deliver it more often?

Referee’s Bookshelf: Traveller Supplement 12: Dynasty

As part of the process of finding stuff to put on this blog, I’ve decided to start reviewing bits and bobs from my RPG collection. The point of this effort is twofold: firstly, to assess whether I really need the book in question, and secondly to see how referees might us it in their campaigns.

Continuing the grand old tradition of nigh-featureless Traveller covers.

This is the twelfth supplement of Mongoose Publishing’s Traveller line. Twelve supplements into a game line’s existence – especially when you consider that that count doesn’t include the advanced career books, generic adventures, and game setting-specific material (Third ImperiumTraveller: 2300 ADJudge Dredd, etc.) that Mongoose have published for the game – and you’re already hitting the stage where you’ve thinking “well, they really have published an awful lot of stuff for this game line, and do we really need more generic supplements for the game at this point?” Indeed, except for a revised version of the original, flawed vehicle books which came out in 2012, Mongoose haven’t released a new core supplement for Traveller since Dynasty came out in 2012.

Most of the “core supplements” produced for Traveller are fairly dry affairs – stats for fairly generic spaceships and vehicles and equipment and so forth which GMs can use to populate their Traveller universes with if they don’t have the time or inclination to stat everything out by hand. However, towards the end of the supplement line Mongoose seem to have had allowed their authors to experiment a little, with rather mixed results. Cybernetics was essentially a stealth conversion of Traveller from a hard-ish space opera game to a cyberpunk game, which I really want to look into integrating into my current campaign more; August Hahn’s Campaign Guide was a quixotic attempt to provide a GMless and/or solitaire mode of play for Traveller which seems to have had a bit of a mixed reception.

And then you have Dynasty. This is the brainchild of Bryan Steele, one of the more reliable of Mongoose’s Traveller writers, and whilst I’m not aware of him going into detail about where he got the idea I mildly suspect that he might have been paying attention to Greg Stolze’s Reign, since much like Reign the supplement seeks to tackle the management of large organisations in an RPG context.

Specifically, Dynasty is designed to support a whole new layer of play which Traveller to date hasn’t given much support to. Dynasties, as the supplement defines them, are powerful organisations – religions, corporations, governments, organised crime syndicates, that sort of thing – existing within a Traveller universe. The supplement provides means of modelling them in the Traveller system, tracing their actions and interactions, and – most importantly – highlights ways in which the interaction of Dynasties can give rise to opportunities for interesting roleplaying adventures.

As with Reign, the process of supporting this requires Steele to effectively come up with an entirely new character creation and task resolution system designed for characters who are not individual human beings, but are substantial organisations in their own right. The extra wrinkle here is that to make any sort of sense as a Traveller supplement, rather than a standalone game, the supplement needs to make use of those of the Traveller rules which are useful for this purpose (not much, as it turns out, except for the basic task resolution system) and also provide rules which feel that they fit into the general design logic of Mongoose Traveller.

By and large, the supplement succeeds at this. Although so far as I am aware there is no precedent for these sorts of rules in Traveller, they feel like a natural extension to the system rather than something artificial being grafted onto it. By focusing, much like Reign‘s group command rules, on wide-scale strategic systems rather than the fine details of tactics, Steele keeps the focus of things firmly on creating opportunities for interesting Traveller scenarios, and indeed one of the options for creating a Dynasty is through a party of Traveller characters from a conventional campaign amassing enough resources and power to found a lasting power (though the skill requirements of this option are rather extreme, which makes me suspect that Steele has forgotten how slow skill training in Traveller is – personally, I’d be inclined to waive the skill requirements on the basis that a party who’s amassed enough money to found a Dynasty can just hire people with the appropriate skills).

This is what I think is one of the real strengths of Dynasty: it’s one of those rulebooks which really gets your gears turning and inspires all sorts of potential campaign ideas. You can have a Traveller campaign which begins conventionally and builds up to the PCs founding a Dynasty, or a game which kicks off with the players designing a Dynasty and with roleplaying scenarios arising from the Dynasty’s activities (there’s some nice rules which modify character generation based on the attributes and nature of a Dynasty, to allow you to make a group of PCs tailored to that Dynasty), or if a Dynasty-based campaign sees the player’s Dynasty crashing and burning you can revert to a conventional Traveller campaign with the players playing a rag-tag group of survivors of the collapsed Dynasty, or you can have a game where each player controls a rival Dynasty, or you can use Dynasty to handle the affairs of major powers behind the scenes in a campaign, or you could run a large organised play event with the refereeing team using Dynasty to handle downtime actions, and so on and so on.

I’ve not had a chance to test out Dynasty in my own Traveller campaign yet, so I can’t say how robust the system is, but it occurs to me that this is the sort of supplement where it doesn’t matter whether the rules are actually well-balanced or not-broken provided that they throw out interesting results, and that certainly seems to be the case.

Traveller: Action-Packed Amnesia

So, first Traveller session was yesterday, and it seemed to be reasonably successful. A lot of it consisted of the initial logistical arrangements of the party’s trading enterprise, but I decided to spice up the process by throwing in a little bit of chaos.

One of the players is – provided their OOC plans go as expected – not necessarily going to be in London for very long, so I knew that any mysteries or plot hooks in their background would need to be addressed quickly – preferably in this first block of sessions – because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to tackle them with that player present, which would be disappointing for everyone. The biggest mystery in his background consists of the last four years of his service in the Scouts, in which we’d determined in character generation that there was a certain amount of missing time. So, I decided to make the PC’s amnesia crisis a little more immediate: the PC in question woke up at the start of the session with no memory of the past four years or so, and voices in their head to boot. By the end of the session the mystery was resolved: the PC in question had been replaced by an android with false memories, as part of a convoluted assassination attempt, and the session closed with the android being destroyed and the real PC waking up.

It’s always risky messing with player free will like this, but in this case I think it worked reasonably well. It helped that we’d established that this character did have a fat chunk of amnesia in the character gen session last week, so we all knew a certain amount of mindfuckery might be on the cards. I also think it helped that it was only for one session and I wasn’t expecting the player to run the mind-controlled android for the long haul – it also helped that the android’s actions would, by definition, not reflect that much on the real PC. It also means the next session is going to put the real PC at centre stage, which I think is both fair compensation and a good opportunity to get at least one session in focused on this specific character before the player departs, and nicely it means that the amnesia issue can be resolved nice and quickly. (Basically, the “amnesia” consists of those sections of the PC’s memories the bad guys weren’t able to copy-paste into the android, so next session the player’s going to get a revised personal history with the real story.) There’s going to be sufficient knock-on effects from what’s happened here to make sure that the plotline in question isn’t just rushed through and then forgotten, but at the same time the first block of sessions should hopefully sufficiently self contained that if and when the player in question becomes available they can feel that they’ve still been able to play through the interesting part of their character’s story. (Of course, I wouldn’t try this sort of trick with every group; however, in the previous block of sessions we’d been playing through the opening movements of Tatters of the King, so I was able to guage the group’s tolerance for note-passing and general weirdness affecting PCs there.)

Lessons learned:

  • You can get away with borrowing player control of their PC, provided you make it obvious that it’s a temporary situation only.
  • It’s even easier to get away with it if it’s less a matter of you taking control of their PC and more a matter of allowing them to control a non-player character who happens to be borrowing the PC’s memories.
  • Ships need cats; must generate ship’s cat for next session.

Traveller: Why Can’t More Character Creation Processes Be Like This?

Yesterday we had the character generation session for my upcoming Traveller campaign. I think it might be the most fun character generation session I’ve ever presided over, and it’s due entirely to the way Mongoose’s edition of Traveller implements its life path mechanics. Mongoose Traveller, like Classic Traveller, uses terms of service in various jobs and institutions as the primary means by which characters get skills and other benefits in character generation. (Unlike Classic, it does give some means for obtaining a few extra skills here and there for the sake of rounding things out, but for the most part the focus is still on those terms of service.) In Classic, however, what goes on in a particular term is actually rather sparse; you might get promoted, you might get fired, you might die, that’s more or less it.

Mongoose, conversely, have modified the Classic “survival” roll so that if you fail it you don’t die, but you do have a randomly-generated mishap which causes your ejection from the particular career you had been pursuing. Even if you don’t have a little accident, you still roll on an Events table to get some flavourful incident to spice up that term. This means that no four-year tour of duty is uneventful, and soon enough not only do characters obtain colourful personal histories, but these histories also sometimes generate unexpected synergy with other features of the term. (For instance, one character accidentally caused a small war in one of their terms – at which point they received a promotion, when they hadn’t received any recognition for more heroic actions earlier in their career. Obviously, we decided, the powers that be had been hoping to kindle that war for ages before the PC finally gave them the casus belli they needed…)

On top of that, events which happen to coincide suggest linkages with the characters. For instance, two players were ejected from the Navy and Army respectively due to military disasters blamed on them by their commanders, which has led us to infer that about 8-12 years before the campaign started there was a big war which both characters were involved in – and in fact it was the same commander who framed both of them.

The way I ran the session was to have the players generate their basic characteristics and do their other preliminaries simultaneously, then go around the group running through each player’s first term of service one at a time, then each player’s second term, and so on. (We eventually stopped at 4 terms of service, at which point the characters had become quite well rounded out and the players had, despite various mishaps, managed to obtain roughly the sort of PCs they had been aiming for from the start of the process, and I had enough adventure hooks to plan the first session properly.) This was actually enormously entertaining, and everyone seemed to be engaged by the various twists and turns of each others’ fortunes, so despite the mild added complexity over Classic character generation I think the overall process was far more fun than any character gen process I can recently remember participating in.

The character gen session for my AD&D game was also nice and painless, and also notably heavily based on randomness – thanks to the stat-generating method we used there was little dithering about character classes because people often didn’t qualify for any of the fancy classes and the choice between mage, fighter, cleric and thief was fairly easy to make. I think what gives Mongoose Traveller the edge, however, is the fact that it’s not only quite random but also generates interesting events and synchronicities. I do find that when participating in games with people who are new to RPGs their enthusiasm for the process can be dampened right at the start of the game by a stodgy character generation process which combines lots of book-keeping with lots of choice (because choice tends to involve staring at a shopping list and dithering) and is distinctly lacking in surprises or interesting plot developments. If the process of making a character is difficult and time-consuming and involves lots of concentration and little laughter,  then that’s going to be intensely offputting to new participants, and they can be forgiven for wondering whether the rest of the game is this painful.

In short, I think character generation systems should ideally do at least one of three things:

  • Be short and simple, so you can get the job done within half an hour and get going. AD&D accomplishes this, so does Call of Cthulhu.
  • Build enough entertaining features into the process that generating a character is almost a fun game in its own right. This is what Mongoose Traveller does; Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay does the same if you go full random, though interestingly I don’t think the 40K RPGs succeed to the same extent because they seem to have more points where you are picking options from very long and complicated lists.
  • If you absolutely must be slow and stodgy because you have a target audience which loves character choice and optimisation and dislikes random wackiness, at least have the courtesy to include a robust process for bypassing a heap of these choices so players who are new to this sort of thing (or just find character optimisation impossibly tedious) can bypass all that and jump into the game quickly. A nicely developed template system can help a lot here.

Lessons learned:

  • Character generation can be fun and if it isn’t fun that’s a completely legitimate complaint.
  • Coincidences create plot opportunities.
  • Mongoose Traveller could well be Best Traveller.