Saturday, 30 January 2010

“Version – we do for the love of it”

The Traveller Book (Classic Traveller), MegaTraveller, and GURPs Traveller rule books
Since its release in 1977, Traveller has been through a number of versions – Classic Traveller; MegaTraveller; Traveller: The New Era; Mark Miller’s Traveller (also known as T4); GURPs Traveller; Traveller T20; Traveller Hero; and Mongoose Traveller. Mark Miller’s legendary T5 is still in development.

Mongoose Traveller is the current, officially supported, version of Traveller and along with a slew of excellent titles, Mongoose has been quite supportive of third-party publishing groups, such as Spica, who have published adventures, supplements and ship deck plans.

I started playing Classic Traveller in about 1980 and, to me, the core mechanic is roll 2d6 and score 8+ to succeed – this covers so many situations, with the GM able to add or subtract DMs as required that, like the paper clip, it seems impossible to understand why we haven’t been using it since the Egyptians began playing dice to while away the hours between pyramid builds.

What put me off MegaTraveller was DGP’s Task Roll mechanism. To me, they had taken an intuitive system and attempted to reduce it to a formula, reduce it to something that the GM had no control over. Looking back now, this was probably a mistaken assumption on my part.

DGP did do a lot of amazing stuff for Traveller, but they did have this completist streak that extended from quantifying the Task Roll to mapping the Universe. There is always this desire to know what’s ‘over there’. DGP took this to its illogical extent by mapping the entire Imperium, but otherwise providing little or no data on what they had mapped. So, creative wandering within the Imperium was effective curtailed, but hundreds of worlds, now with basic stats, were left hanging with no further development. Fan groups, like HIWG, did do a lot of work backfilling in what DGP had created – expanding the tables of stats into worlds with their own populations and cultures but, at the end of the day, most of this work was never picked up by DGP, as the licensee, or GDW, when they took Traveller back in house. This illusion of completeness did have people complaining that the Imperium, as a setting, was boring.

And then there was the Imperial Civil War story line, started by GDW and carried forward by DGP. A war can add interest and uncertainty to a campaign as the players work their way around the edges. The Imperial Civil War tore down what, to a number of players, was a viable setting, but did it in areas that had been poorly described beyond the broad brush Imperial Survey. Consequently, there was this feeling of frustration at the loss of the background, but little attachment to the places of conflict (the Core Worlds and Ilelish, for example).

I missed T:NE completely. I read the blurb on one book that talked about a sentient computer virus called, drum roll, “Virus”, and said, ‘Nah!’

I nearly missed GURPs Traveller as well, but saw the main, 3rd Edition Rule Book and bought them, probably out of a feeling of nostalgia. I was very impressed with what Loren Wiseman did in converting Traveller material to GURPs. I subsequently collected a number of the supplements and support books. Love GURPs character creation and the character templates, love the supplementary material that came out, and collect it purely to mine it for ideas, I’m just not keen on the GURPs combat system. As I get older, I have less time for gaming and so want simpler systems. I therefore bend back towards Classic Traveller because it is so simple in that regard.

Of the later versions of Traveller, such as T4, T20, Hero, and the 1248 setting, I’d never heard of them until my interest in Traveller was rekindled by the release of Mongoose Traveller. I have generated a number of MongTraveller characters, but have yet to play, or run, a game purely under those rules. I find that, in places, MongTraveller is so similar to Classic Traveller that I might as well generate the characters in MongTraveller and run the game as per Classic Traveller to prevent confusion.

So, which version of Traveller is the best? The one you, as a player or referee like, and feel most comfortable with. I’m fortunate in that I love Classic Traveller and like Mongoose Traveller and love the background material for GURPs Traveller. I also like Pocket Empires for T4, a lot of the MegaTraveller material, and Path of Tears for T:NE. In fact, there is always something one can lift from any of these sets of rules to add depth and breadth and height to your own game, no matter what version of Traveller you use.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Aliens Ate My Baby - Part 2: Bring me my rubber suit and latex eyeridges

Recently I saw a discussion on either The Miniatures Page or one of the Traveller Yahoo groups where a poster was asking after an article on alien construction that appeared in Dragon Magazine back in the 1980s. I remember the article, and I think I actually have a copy of it in my box of RPG stuff. It was quite an innovative article for its time in some respects, in that the physical characteristics of an alien race were defined by a series of dice rolls on a sequence of tables. The idea was to get away from the Classic Star Trek aliens ‘with latex brow ridges or different coloured skin paint’, and generate aliens that were, well, alien.

Of the Classic Traveller alien races, the Zhodani were just tall, turban-wearing psionic human, the Vargr were dogmen (and usually played as anarchic sociopaths), the Aslan were mock-samurai catmen and the Droyne were little guys in rubber lizard suits. No one really played K’kree in my group and it is only in retrospect that I discover they were fanatical genocidal vegetarians. Only the Hivers were truly alien in both appearance (giant starfish) and motivation (cliques of manipulators). Now this all sounds a bit harsh, and I’m still very fond of the Traveller Major Races but, back in the day, that was how things were.

I’ve just finished reading Flynn’s Guide to Alien Creation by Jason “Flynn” Kemp, a little, ‘compatible with (Mongoose) Traveller’, product put out by Samardan Press and available from Lulu.

Using a 14-step checklist, Jason examines homeworld factors, ecology, size, movement type, senses and alien traits and uses these to round out an existing alien concept, as well as create an alien race from scratch. At $US 4.99 for a PDF, a booklet of this quality is a bargain. I am very impressed with this product and cannot wait to begin using it to define the alien races in my Traveller campaign.

Jason puts in an occasional appearance on the SFRPG boards where you can also find his very excellent Stellar Reaches fanzine if it isn't available from his site.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Aliens Ate My Baby - Part 1: Gamelea Subsector

The Mos Eisley Cantina scene in the movie Star Wars (now called ‘A New Hope’ or some such nonsense) had a profound effect upon me when I first saw it in the mid-late 70s. This was science fiction! This was what a poly-species galaxy should look like. I was always vaguely disappointed by Asimov’s Foundation series for this reason – a humano-centric galaxy seemed to both grant too much importance to humaniti as a species, and to disregard the chance that life might evolve on other planets and in other forms.

I understand that, at some stage, during the evolution of Traveller, a rule of thumb was propagated that there should only be two to three intelligent species per Sector. Well, I must have missed that memo. And I have not really seen any concrete reasoning why this must be so, or why a rule of thumb has now become a Rule. I am quite happy, though, with the differentiation between Major Races (independently develop Jump Drive technology) and Minor Races (have not developed Jump Drive by the time they are contacted by a Major Race) – though the fact three septs of Humaniti (Zhodani, Vilani and Solomani) claim the role of Major Race does seem a little odd.

The RimWorlds, a wisp of stars extending hundreds of light years above the Galactic Plane, was dominated by a hexapedal reptilian species known as the Tsalur. The Thongaloros Empire, as their interstellar polity was known, finally collapsed in 103, nearly 400 years before the first Imperial presence in the RimWorlds. Interestingly, the fall of the Thongaloros Empire is attributed to attacks by ‘Outrim Barbarians’ – these are yet to be defined but it is noted that Aslan colonise Yuwe/Lymethius some 200 years prior to the collapse of the Empire – who obvious possess Jump technology, even if they did not develop it.

The Thongaloros Empire, dominated by the Tsalur, tended to scoop up Minor Race populations and move them wholesale across space to wherever they were required; as workers, slaves, or for other duties. Once established on their new home worlds, the transplanted populations tended to remain, even after the Empire collapsed, as the logistics for moving vast numbers of people over parsecs of space disappeared with the Empire. When the 3rd Imperium began to probe into the RimWorlds in the 490’s, they discovered a mosaic of Pocket Empires, single world polities and systems that had not seen a Jump-capable starship in two to three centuries.

In the Gamelea Subsector, three Minor Races were discovered by the Imperium; the amphibian Julnari of Julnar; the avianoid Rimbaur of Rimbaud II; and the humanoid Kalar-Wi of Kalar-Wi.

Not much is recorded of either the Julnari or the Rimbaur prior to the 11th or 12th Centuries. The Julnari, even with a population of only 900,000 on the water world of Julnar, managed to achieve Tech Level 15 – one of only two systems in the Gamelea Subsector to do so – by the late 1090’s. Homeworld of the computing and robotics megacorporation Julnar Cybernetics, the Julnari enjoy wealth and influence in the subsector far beyond what would be expected of such a small population.

The Rimbaud War of 1042 – 1044 between Kalar-Wi and the Rimbaur nearly resulted in the extermination of the latter Minor Race and extensive damage to the ecology of Rimbaud II. The Rimbaud War only ceased under direct threat of Imperial intervention. Kalar-Wi remained in possession of Rimbaud II for the next 70 years until the defeat of Kalar-Wi in the Kalar-Wi War of 1103 – 1105. The Rimbaur emerged from beneath the domination of Kalar-Wi with a deep-seated racial inferiority complex and an intense distrust of the Imperium.

The Kalar-Wi are a fascinating culture. Intensely militaristic, they blindly follow charismatic leaders. Their head of state has a title that translates as ‘Warlord’. Initial contact with the expanding Imperium was favourable as the Imperium demonstrated superior technology and a cavalier adventurer mentality. The Kalar-Wi were quite prepared to ally with the Imperium and protect the flanks of the nascent Gamelea subsector. Kalar-Wi came to dominate a small, but powerful, interstellar empire during the Outrim Wars of the 10th and 11th Centuries. The Rimbaud War of 1042 – 1044 marked the first time that Kalar-Wi had been checked by Imperial authority – the hopelessly corrupt Subsector Dukes of Gamelea had long since ceded two Imperial worlds to Kalar-Wi control – and this initiated the steadily downward spiral of relationship between the two powers that resulted in the Kalar-Wi War of 1103 – 1105.

As of 1109, the Imperial garrison of Kalar-Wi is in the process of withdrawing and the Kalar-Wi Warlord Vran’kal Youka is set to return from exile in Cabria Subsector.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Accountants in Space

In April of 2008 I began drawing up a spreadsheet containing all the statistical data I had to hand on the six subsectors I had developed in detail for my Traveller campaign. I had been working on the history of the RimWorlds Sector just prior to this, and had narrated a major civil war that had wracked the region several centuries prior to the current campaign date, the Imperial year 1109. This civil war was followed by a couple of centuries of intermittent conflict along both the Rimward and Spinward Imperial borders. As I was doing a lot of starship combat wargaming at the time, using the Full Thrust rules from Ground Zero Games, I wanted to have an idea of both the resources available to the various combatants and whether the scenarios I was happily belting out on my computer were actually feasible as military campaigns.

Using the formulas and exchange rates from CT: Adventure 5 Trillion Credit Squadron (and after having a quick look at the similar but different formulas in Striker), I worked out planetary military budgets and port capacities for all the planets I had developed, plus the total naval budgets for the various non-Imperial alliances, as well as Imperial Subsector Naval, Sector Naval and Imperial Naval budgets for all the developed subsectors.

It was an interesting exercise, and has given me a much more detailed understanding of my area of space. The next step is, of course, to develop the naval fleets of the various polities and, possibly, game with them. I have attempted this at a minor level in the past, gaming out the Miazan Subsector Rebellion, but found that battles fought under the CT: High Guard rules are incredibly boring buckets-of-dice fests, especially if attempted solo.

I was fascinated to discover the ‘collapsing’ mechanism used both by GDW for Traveller: The New Era, and by writers for Traveller T20 for the 900 period prior to the ‘Golden Age’, to shift Baseline UWPs forward or backward in time. Coupled with my discovery of the T4 Supplement Pocket Empires, I began to conceive of a metacampaign, possibly starting from a point two centuries prior to the current campaign date – 1109 – and rolling forward to see if I would achieve a result similar to my current campaign. I began working my existing data into the various formulas for Pocket Empires, though gaps in my Excel programming knowledge has rather stalled that part of the project at present.

The universality of such tools as Excel make such thought exercises quite doable now days, and a lot more fun than trying to keep your millions, billions and trillions in order with a pocket calculator and a pencil. The job of Interstellar Megalomaniac has just got that little bit easier.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Website Update #1

15mm ESU Naval Infantry from Ground Zero Games - doing duty as the Army of the Geithurian Republic
Finished updating my website today with photos of some freshly finished figures and a building I scratch-built.

The main group of figures, ESU Naval Infantry from Ground Zero Games, will form the central units of my Geithurian Republic Ground Forces.

The Geithurian Republic is a human-dominated, extra-Imperial polity in the Lymethius Subsector, actively opposed to Imperial expansion in the region.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Accidents in Astrography: Gamelea Subsector #1

Gamelea Subsector

The Gamelea Subsector was the first subsector generated for my RimWorlds Traveller Campaign.

In and of itself, the Gamelea Subsector isn’t very unusual, until you start looking at it from an economic and political point of view.

The Gamelea Subsector lies nearly at the Rimward edge of Imperial space within the RimWorlds Sector (Miazan Subsector, off the bottom of the Gamelea Subsector map, marks the Imperial frontier to Rimward). This, in itself, isn’t a problem until you start looking for the obvious links coreward of Gamelea. While the Xboat route links Kalath and the worlds of the Gamelea cluster via Julnar to the core worlds, this is a Jump-4 link. A Jump-3 route is possible from Kalath to Leminkainen but with Leminkainen’s poor D Class Starport, there’s not a lot of support for ships smaller than Long Liners or Megacorp Longhaulers. It would seem that the heart worlds of my Traveller campaign were actually unreachable for standard adventurer type Jump-2 ships.

When I started looking at my Traveller campaign again a couple of years ago, I began to realise that the J-3 Rift running through the subsector was a major impediment. This Rift, incidentally, continues to Trailing, bisecting Nolgor Subsector as well, and continuing over the Sector border. I suppose I could have just thrown a couple of systems into the Rift and then the problem would have gone away, but the mapping of the Lymethius Subsector, to Spinward of Gamelea Subsector, had thrown up a reach just inside that subsector border that looked as if it might provide a solution to my shipping quandary.

When I started working with Dave Redington on The BurrowWolf webcomic, I redrew the Border Worlds area on a J-6 map template I discovered on Berka’s Zhodani Base website. In this format, star patterns that were not readily apparent in the conventional 8x10 subsector map format leapt into view and suddenly provided a reason for the Imperium's dogged defence of these worlds through a series of border wars with the neighbouring stellar polities.

So, the lesson I learnt through this process is that terrain, even in space, is what defines a polity and access ways and borders exist for reasons. In works of fiction, a plausible reason why something exists enhances the story background, and gives possible hooks for future stories.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

A Brief History of (my) Traveller Time

I discovered Traveller in about 1980. School holidays spent working the kiwifruit harvest, and then doing various odd jobs on the family farm, paid for my three Little Black Books, and then paid for some of the Supplements and Adventures. A side effect of that time is that I still loath the smell of kiwifruit.

The three LBBs were all you really needed to get started with Traveller – you didn’t even really need players, initially, as generating subsectors and planetary systems was a game in itself.

My Science Fiction influences at that time would have been Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, Andre Norton’s Young Person’s Science Fiction (in particular, the Solar Queen stories, Judgement on Janus, Lord of Thunder, and The Beast Master), Heinlein’s Have Space Suit, Will Travel and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, plus other writers, as well as Blake’s 7, Space 1999, Battlestar Galactica and, of course, Star Wars.

So, Traveller, to me, has a slightly 70’s Space Opera tinge. Humaniti is just one of a number of star spanning civilizations; there are mysterious ruins to explore on steamy jungle worlds; there are pirates to elude and criminal gangs hanging around the star port bars; fortunes can be won or lost over a game of Stars and Comets; and while the Imperial Fleet and the Imperial Marines struggle to enforce law and order, there are always those in power looking for an unofficial fix.

When I created my campaign, I wanted to establish it in a border region, a bit like the Spinward March, as borders are always areas of political tension, and tension creates adventures. And so The RimWorlds campaign was born.

Initially, I rolled up the Gamelea subsector, and this is still the subsector I know best in my head. Over the years, I have expanded the number of mapped subsectors to six, sketched out a sector map, and even worked up a history for the thousand years before the campaign date, and the last 500 or so years in more detail. The ‘official’ Traveller Imperium exists, but at some distance away along a wisp of stars linking the RimWorlds cluster with the Spinward March. This allows me some freedom to run things my way, while keeping some of the flavour and background of the original game.

So, that’s the premise of my Traveller campaign. Now for some detail and and some thought experiments.

I'm not sure what it is, but it goes on here like this

Still fiddling around with the header picture. Looked OK on my machine at home, but pretty rubbish on a monitor at work.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

In the Beginning

In the Beginning there was the Word, and the Word was how do you work this thing?

Welcome to yet another Science Fiction Roleplaying and Wargaming Blog. Not much to see at the moment, but we've only just turned it on.