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 By the end of the session the mystery was resolved: the PC in question had been replaced by an android with false memories, as part of a convoluted assassination attempt, and the session closed with the android being destroyed and the real PC waking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.

Traveller: Galactic Empires

So, having populated the map of Fringe Sector 13 with star systems and gone through the process of generating worlds, I’ve been working on setting up some interstellar states. The way I see it, if you want a world to become the hub of an interstellar government in Traveller you need to be bringing several important ingredients to the table.

  • Your world needs to have at least Tech Level 10 so you can build Jump drives. You can’t really be a colonial superpower if you’re relying on someone else to build your warships. Yes, according to the rules as written the elite of a world can get access to somewhat higher Tech Levels than the local average, but you can’t rule a galactic empire if your fleet only consists of a few cutting-edge prototypes: you need to be able to crank out starships reliably and regularly. The higher the Tech Level beyond 10, of course, the further you can Jump, so the larger your potential sphere of influence can be.
  • Once you know how to make starships you need the infrastructure to do so. This means you need to have a type A or B starport, because only those have the facilities to craft interstellar ships from scratch. The way I see it, the type A and B starports of a galactic empire are its hubs; prudent empires will not attempt to expand more than 1 Jump away from one of their A/B starports because let’s face it, that 1 week per Jump thing already puts a huge cramp on people’s style when it comes to interstellar communication and responding to emergencies because you essentially can’t send a punitive Naval force anywhere until at least 2 weeks after shit has kicked off because it’ll take at least 1 Jump for the news to get to you and 1 Jump for your vengeance to make its way back to the crisis zone. Trying to rule a planet 2 jumps away from your nearest major starport means that your Naval forces (who tend to be concentrated around such starports) may end up taking a month to respond to an emergency, which is pushing things out of the realm of viability.
  • You need to have an economic reason to go out and secure other people’s raw materials. This means, based on the trade system, you need to have at least one of the High Technology, High Population, Rich or Industrial traits. Some of these are mutually exclusive and others always appear together (you can’t be a Coruscant-style Industrial planet unless you have High Population, for instance), so the possible combinations are High-Tech/Industrial/High Population, High Tech/Rich, High Tech/High Population, High Population/Industrial, Rich, High Population, High Tech. Obviously, the more of these traits you have the greedier you are for raw materials and the better basis for massive expansion you have; a High-Tech, High Population Industrial planet has cool toys, the industrial capacity to make heaps of them, and plenty of people to draft into the Space Navy. Conversely, worlds with only one of these traits will expand more slowly – and indeed High-Tech worlds with Low Population, or a population too small to support an industrial base, may find that they are quite limited in their opportunities for expansion because you can only delegate so much to robots.
  • You need to have a single world government – balkanised worlds are too busy with their internal bickering to colonise the stars most of the time, and even if they make the attempt an individual country from a balkanised world isn’t going to be able to stand up to a galactic empire ruled by a world which can throw its entire economic weight behind its colonisation process.

So, having identified worlds with these traits and working out which worlds would expand quickly and which slowly, I started on the process of plotting out their spheres of influence. First I looked at the worlds within 1 Jump of their capitals, then worlds within 1 Jump of any type A/B starports captured during the first stage of the process, and so on.

In determining which worlds have been taken in by a star empire, I compared their governmental types. Worlds with the same governmental type as the empire’s capital, or which have the Captive Government governmental type, are under direct rule – their affairs are administered directly by the central government. (The big difference is that worlds under Captive Government have no real representation in the central government, whereas other worlds under direct rule are able to send representatives to the central government, whether this takes the form of elected members of a galactic assembly or fresh recruits for the military junta.)

Worlds with a government type which is different from the capital world (say, a Participatory Democracy being scouted out for recruitment by a Representative Democracy) but vaguely compatible have a 2 in 3 chance of being taken in under home rule – they get to keep their original form of government but let the galactic empire handle interstellar diplomacy and warfare. Worlds with an incompatible government type have a 1 in 3 chance of being inducted anyway under a home rule basis; likewise, in the case of balkanised worlds, there’s a 1 in 3 chance that one of the nation-states on the planet is backed by the galactic empire, or indeed represents a colonial force sent by the galactic empire. (Note that the way I did the system, worlds within 1 Jump of two different type A/B starports ruled by a galactic empire might end up having two rolls to see if they’re in the empire. This I consider a feature, not a bug: if the empire’s navy can double-team you from two different directions, that’s a good sign you might want to reconsider your earlier rejection.) Worlds with no government type are not part of any galactic empire – because if they were, they’d have a government, right?

Because I don’t want to have a dozen galactic empires with more or less the same governmental type, when two galactic empires of exactly the same government type ended up within 1 Jump of each other I merged ’em. The end result was a few large superpowers, a handful of smaller states, and some wild, unclaimed areas of the map to boot. (I’ve also designated some worlds with no governmental type to be Kzinti-colonised worlds, since I’ve decided that a) the Kzinti governmental type I’ve made up doesn’t really slot into any of the standard Traveller government types and b) the Kzinti wouldn’t accept entrance into any galactic empire and nobody considers poking that sort of hornet’s nest to be worth their while).

Once I’d done that, I was ready to flesh the various stellar empires out. Here are the interstellar states that call Fringe Sector 13 home…

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Traveller: Aliens and Non-Humans

Intelligent aliens in SF RPGs – the sort who can talk and build things and sell you stuff and offer you jobs and conspire to rule the galaxy, as opposed to the sort who are basically monsters – come in two different varieties, broadly corresponding to the two different flavours of intelligent aliens offered by SF as a whole. You have your humans in rubber suits, who are no different from ordinary humans in terms of the way they think or behave 99% of the time (or take one particular aspect of the human experience and crank it up to 11), or you have aliens whose designers intend them to be properly alien, and so often have decidedly unusual psychologies which don’t necessarily seem very functional.

Traditionally, Traveller has been hyped by the fans as offering excellent examples of the latter sort. Certainly, in the default Third Imperium setting the designers made a concerted effort to try and make sure this was the case: in general, the “humans in funny suits” niche was taken by actual human cultures – descendants of peoples kidnapped from Earth back in caveman times by the Ancients and transplanted to other parts of the galaxy following a certain amount of tampering – whilst the more exotic aliens like the K’kree or the Hivers had entire supplements devoted to understanding their psychological makeup and societies.

This is cool if you appreciate Traveller as an exercise in worldbuilding for the sake of worldbuilding. I think it’s markedly less useful in the context of actually playing the game. If, as a GM, I were seriously trying to roleplay your alien characters according to the writeups in the alien modules then I suspect one of two things would happen: either I would be so hesitant in thinking through how the aliens are going to behave that it would slow the game down or I would end up failing to distinguish the individuals as individuals, due to being so taken up with portraying their psychology as a species I won’t have time to make them distinct characters in their own right.

The Mongoose edition of Traveller includes basic stats for the more prominent aliens in the official Traveller universe. Whilst I am not using that galaxy I have no qualms about pinching ideas from it and mangling them to fit my own plans – and, in particular, to make my portrayal of said aliens easier. (For the moment I don’t want to include any alien PCs in the game, because I like the assumption of an all-human party in Classic Traveller and I think scarcity of aliens and the specialness of meeting them is mildly undermined if there’s an alien on your crew.

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Traveller: Galactic History and Stellar Governance

Since my primary GMing responsibility for the near future lies with the preparation of my Traveller campaign, I thought I’d treat you folks to some of the work I’ve been doing on the background – mainly, I admit, as a spur to me doing the actual work, but still, it’s the thought that counts right? If you’re interested, the goodies are after the cut, if you don’t care about me blabbering about my homebrewed campaign setting move on, nothing to see here.

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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.