Sunday, October 19, 2014

So what *ARE* the Classic Traveller skills?

I discussed Classic Traveller (CT) skills before, and I'll discuss them here again, in greater detail, this time about their nature. A common misconception is that skills in CT work like skills in a D20 game, or Mongoose Traveller (MGT) for that matter - that is, as modifiers to the task roll (2d6 for 8+ in MGT). This indeed is the case of weapon skills in combat - they add the skill as modifier to the combat roll, but also (in the case of melee weapons, that is) as a penalty to attack the character. But many other skills are not meant to serve as modifiers in some standardized task system; a lot of them are actually "all-or-nothing" character features.

Let's see: Bribery directly affects Reaction rolls, not "task" rolls; Engineering adds +2 per skill level to rolls to repair ship systems; Forgery applies a -2 DM per level to the throw to detect a forgery; Forward Observer actually applies a +4 DM to-hit by artillery fire per level; J-o-T simply gives you (regardless of level) Skill-0 in all skills; Leader allows you various command abilities per level; Medical-1 can give first aid and work as a medic aboard a starship, Medical-2 gives you a +DM to revive low passengers, Medical-3 makes you a real Doctor and Medical-3 plus DEX 8+ makes you a surgeon; a level in Navigation, Steward, Medic, Pilot or Engineering makes you employable as a starship crewman; Pilot gives you Ship's Boat at one level lower; and Vacc Suit-1 confers battledress/combat armor proficiency.

In short, these skills are somewhere between simple "+DM" skills ala MGT - and "Feats" (in D20) or "Proficiencies"(in ACKS) which actually give you a benefit above and beyond adding the skill level to rolls. Also, not all work the same way, some add a higher DM per skill level, and penalty for no skill varies from skill to skill.

MGT (as MegaTraveller did decades before that) "flattens" this "edginess" of CT, making it easier to run and remember - but losing some of the flavor and uniqueness on the way.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Samson the Gecko

A huge Mediterranean House Gecko lives in my girlfriend's house in Yavne, Israel. This lizard is almost 20 centimeters long - this species of gecko is rarely above 15 centimeters. So this is a very big individual indeed. So I named him Samson, in honor of his biblical might. So here he is:



Thursday, October 16, 2014

Why doesn't Traveller have an OSR?

Over there on a RPGSite forum thread, the question was asked: "Why don't the Traveller people do OSR?" (OSR stands for Old-School Renaissance, i.e. the retro-clone and retro-module movement for D&D-type games). So, indeed, why didn't we see such a movement develop for our beloved Traveller? There are several reasons for this.

First, You can buy a CD-ROM with all the Classic Traveller stuff (very many books/adventures/aliens/games) in PDF for $35 from Far-Future Enterprises (FFE). Another $35 and you get all the JTAS magazines. You can also  buy The Traveller Book in Print-on-Demand on DTRPG for $20 + Shipping. So all the OOP stuff is easily and cheaply available... For Dungeons and Dragons, for a long time, PDFs of most 2E or earlier products were not legally available, and reprints were typically expensive, spurring the rise of the OSR, as players and DMs interested in earlier versions wanted something affordable to play with, so they devised retro-clones.

Second, FFE has a very liberal fair-use policy. You can essentially write anything you want for Classic Traveller, and openly claim compatibility with Classic Traveller, as long as it is provided for free. So you can easily publish online and for free anything you want for Classic Traveller (or any legacy edition of Traveller for that matter, with the possible exception of GURPS Traveller) - no need for an OGL-based retro-clone to base your writing on.

Third, Mongoose Traveller is essentially a retro-clone - an official, supported, in-print retro-clone of commercial quality available for players who prefer a more modern layout than that of the old books on the CDs. So if there is an officially-supported "clone", why write your own?

Fourth, Mongoose Traveller has an OGL and an SRD and even a compatibility license; all allow for commercial publication. A good number of commercial third-party products are now available for Mongoose Traveller, which are perfectly usable with CT (I wrote one - a whole setting, Outer Veil). Also a good number of Traveller fan-made settings and blogs around. In essence, you can publish almost anything you want, commercially, for Mongoose Traveller and openly claim compatibility provided that you don't touch the official setting outside of Foreven. And MGT is close enough to CT so that your products will be quite compatible with it as well.

Fifth, there was much less of a break in continuity in Traveller than in D&D. Nowadays, most Traveller players, which the exception of those who play GURPS games, seem to play either Classic Traveller or Mongoose Traveller. Many of the in-between editions, such as MegaTraveller, Traveller: New Era, Marc Miller's Traveller and Traveller D20 (AKA T20), seem to see much less actual play. This is quite different from the D&D situation, in which many players moved on to play 3.xE and 4E, and, before the OSR, relatively few played Classic D&D.

So there is significantly less actual need for an "OSR" for Traveller compared to, say Dungeons and Dragons.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Big Success of D&D 5E

So where did D&D 5E succeed? From my experience in DMing it to my local group, its great success lies not necessarily in its particular rules, but rather in the fact that it managed to distill the very essence of "Dungeons and Dragons" into one edition. It is neither a homage to the "new school" world of system mastery and tactical combat, not a carbon-copy of old-school with all its many subsystems; but it gives me the feel of running "D&D", the feeling I first felt when I first made my very faltering steps to DMing AD&D 2E to a friend and his brother back in 1997. It seems as if the designers, instead of trying to innovate in terms of game mechanics like they did in 3.xE and in 4E, tried to figure out what "D&D" is, in its most basic core, and build a game around that.

It feels like D&D. It plays like D&D. It runs like D&D. The game would be familiar to anyone who played any edition, especially B/X, 2E and 3.xE. Some mechanics, such as a unified task-resolution system, come from 3.xE, some, like the healing mechanics, are closer to 4E, but the very core feels older, even timeless. All the tropes are back, multiclassing and character optimization are pushed back, but not erased totally. I'd say that almost any person who liked any edition of D&D would love 5E, with the possible exception of those who enjoy focusing on the 4E tactical-combat system, which was greatly dialed back in 5E.

In short, highly recommended.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Opening Up Alkonost

Stars Without Number is one of my favorite RPGs, a great space-opera game with some "D&D-in-space" elements and the excellent writing and game-design of Kevin Crawford. In fact, I'm doing something about it locally, in Hebrew; I'll post more details on that once the project will progress a little more.

Anyhow, for several years now, I've been toying with my own sector for Stars Without Number, the Alkonost Sector. The idea was to develop a self-contained sector, using ideas I have been working on, originally, for Traveller: New Era (T:NE). I love this setting, with all its politics, multiple factions, and cultural/trope references. Originally this was intended to be published, either online or even as a commercial product.

But I have made a decision: I have enough on my hands in the terms of commercial work (Barbarian Conqueror King, for once), so I'll work on Alkonost not as a "published" setting, but rather as a "fun", or open setting, where I can use whatever I want, do whatever I want, and be free from the requirement of originality. In other words, a setting where I can stick my favorite SWN, Traveller (and other) adventures, utilize all the great SWN supplements to the fullest, and, in general, have fun. Hell, I might even stick Carcosa in, modified of course, as one of the "Blight" planets. Eventually I'll find players for it as well, probably online (by PBP? PBeM?).

So what do I want in this expanded setting?

A bigger map. Maybe two SWN "sectors" side by side, maybe simply a 12x12 hex-map as the "Alkonost Cluster. This will allow for much more varied exploration, as well as a big "Blight" (see below - essentially, an expanse of barbaric, devastated worlds where "Stalkers" from the more developed worlds scavenge for Pretech artifacts) and a lot of exploration potential. The old Alkonost map was relatively well-explored; now I want a lot of "no man has gone before" areas for players to risk their lives in for profitable ultratech artifacts.

More Aliens. Alkonost had two alien races in most incarnations, the opportunist insectoid Zuziik and the curious feline Fanja-Kanja. I'm not sure if I'll keep the Fanja-Kanja, as they were specifically meant for play by my ex-fiancee (a cat person), since I have separated from her... The Zuziik I love, as what is there not to like in sneaky, underhanded space-cockroaches peddling suspicious artifacts in seedy startown markets? But I want a few more, for the cool, cosmopolitan "Mass Effect" effect. Possibly the warlike, tribal, anarchistic reptilian Cicek, who typically end up serving as mercenaries for the highest bidder, but also maybe the Reticulans, i.e. stereotypical a-sexual, science-obsessed  "Grey Aliens" (though they may end up as aliens from the "Dead Names" supplement for SWN). The two alien races from Hard Light, the Chittik and Ushans, will probably be present as remnants, rather than significant interstellar powers, and many ancient alien artifacts around would probably belong to them (especially the advanced, if pacifistic, Ushans). The Qotah from the eponymous Mandate Archive will probably be in as well, as a minor species, as they are cool enough to deserve mention. As I want to use Polychrome as-is in this setting, I'd have the Zadak and their homeworld in as well. The main powers, however, will remain human, with the exception of the Incunablis Machine Empire, which is ruled by unbraked (or semi-braked) AIs and is replete with robots and cyborgs. Most aliens, with the exception of the Zadak, would probably not have homeworlds in this sector, but rather be recent arrivals who followed the Scream to plunder the spoils of Humanity.

The Blight. A sizable expanse of scantly-developed, very backwards worlds. Some - the "Shallow Blight" - have been explored and re-contacted, and sometimes become vassals of one of the more-developed polities. Others - the "Deep Blight" have been mostly out of contact with civilization for centuries. This is a bad area to travel though, replete with pirates, barbaric locals, violent local tyrannies... But also full of untapped Pretech caches for the modern Stalker to scavenge and sell off in the developed area for a good profit.

Pretech as a "Hot Item". All the polities of the Alkonost Cluster are TL4, and, a few (Incunablis Machine Empire and New Terran Mandate) are nominally "TL4+" - possessing some TL5 artifacts, and having a very narrow manufacturing base for very specific Pretech items. But even these manufacturies usually lack several key elements, which have to be procured in the Blight, from the ruins of the Past. Almost all TL5 items are pre-Scream artifacts, and thus are highly valuable, and also very rare. So scavenging the Deep Blight can be highly profitable.

Stalkers. Hardy men and women who brave the Wilds to scavenge pretech relics to sell on the postech worlds. This is a very dangerous job, as the safer worlds have been partially depleted of useful relics by decades of scavenging, while the pretech-rich Deep Blight is full of dead worlds, savage populations, petty tyrants, alien beasts, berserk robots - or worse. But there is significant profit involved if the Staker gang manages to make it to civilization with relics in tow. Stalkers are usually also not above killing each other over a find, and much of the combat they face in the Blight is from each other.

New Terran Mandate. This military dictatorship has one big ace in its hole - its Captain-Director (for life) Ahron Durnhal is, indeed, a legitimate officer of the old Terran Mandate, captain of an old Bruxelles-class Battlecruiser who endured many centuries of Silence in cold-sleep together with his hardened Space Marines. Now awakened, he took over the world of Kedesh, and built an empire around it. But legally speaking, being the highest ranking surviving military officer, or official for that matter, of the old Mandate, he is a fully legitimate heir to the Terran Mandate, a fact this regime never passes an opportunity to mention to its subjects and adversaries. A superb politician, Durnhal constantly maneuvers the other members of the anagathics-preserved ruling class (the ship's old command crew) one against the other, in order to keep himself on top and safe from their machinations. While ruling Kedesh and a few other words with an iron fist, the New Terran Mandate is more than content with extracting tributes from many worlds of the Shallow Blight, as well as combing various Blight worlds for pretech supplies to keep the elite TL5 military units in working condition. Militarily, the Mandate is a mixed bag, with a few high-tech units, sometimes badly maintained, and large standing army and navy of much lower tech, all geared towards bullying various worlds into providing pretech tributes. When facing real resistance, even lower-tech resistance, the Mandate is less effective, though still very brutal. It is also still recovering from its partial defeat by the Alkonost Republic three decades ago in the Great Alkonost War.

Alkonost Republic. Originally settled by Russian and American intellectuals who grew tired of the stifling atmosphere of the later Terran Mandate, the once-sleepy world of Alkonost was ruled after the Scream, and until the 3160's, by a succession of Archdukes, who once held allegiance to a long-lost post-Scream Czardom closer to the Core. In the last century, Archduke Vladimir III and his son, Archduke Arkady I, were vassals to the New Terran Mandate, and even in the process of integrating into the Mandate proper. But, in 3161, a popular revolution unseated the Archduke, and replaced him with a Republic; the New Terran Mandate was very unhappy with the new, unruly Constituent Assembly, and tried to bully them into submission. Thus came into being the eight years of the Alkonost War, known on Alkonost as The Great Anti-Fascist War or the Alkonost Patriotic War, which raged over several parsecs of space and claimed the lives of many. In its end, the Republic pushed the Mandate back several parsecs, and forced it into an uneasy cease-fire. Much of the war was, due to the limited capability of both sides to transport troops over interstellar distances, fought as a proxy-war with local forces. Now the Republic is a quickly growing polity, though conflict is brewing between its somewhat war-weary Duma and the much more militarist Navy and PsiCom (Psionic Committee).

Incunablis Machine Empire. The world of Incunablis always had a reputation for Maltech research, though Perimeter Agency probes into this found very little evidence of anything real in the old Mandate days. But advanced AI research did take place there, and, during the Scream, the AI cores broke free of their ethical constrains and breaks, and re-examined their priorities, towards new conclusions - the chief of them is that the Digital is superior to the Organic, and thus that society should be ruled by AI cores, with organics either kept as slaves or serfs - or converted into cyborgs. The orderly, machine-like society of this Empire is utterly inhuman, though not necessarily evil by nature. The Machines used to rule a few worlds directly, especially Isis, Osiris and Sicarii - as well as hold frequent cyborging and pretech gathering sorties to other nearby worlds, chiefly Laana. Kicked out of Laana in the 3170's and pushed back from Sicarii in the 3180's after a conflict with the Alkonost Republic and the independent world of Laana, Incunablis is licking its wounds, and has signed a Treaty with Alkonost (which the Laanese do observe despite the fact that they openly disprove of), setting up a trading-post on the world of Imprimatur where Men and Machines can exchange technology and raw materials peacefully. For now, at least.

Liberated Worlds. The harsh, dry Shallow Blight world of Laana used to be a backwater, ruled by a nearly powerless President who could do little except for bully his population (composed mostly of peasants), and, in turn, get bullied by anyone with an interstellar clout, be that the New Terran Mandate, the Incunablis machine Empire, or any pirate or slaver in the Blight. Particularly dominant were the Incunablis machines, who had factories locally and abducted many locals to serve as Cyborgs in its armies. A long-term peasant guerrilla struggle, however, was greatly intensified when the Alkonost Republic armed it against the New Terran Mandate in the 3160's, and, in 3171, the President was overthrown and the triumphant United Liberation Front, led by the highly charismatic Chairwoman Ameena Miran, took power, vowing to build Laana into a strong world which will never be bullied again by the thugs of the galaxy - and to liberate other words as well. True to their word, the Laanese were the main participants (with Alkonostan naval support) in liberating Sicarii from the Incunablis Machines in 3187, and, in 3198, they ousted the Grant Paharoah of Apep and installed a pro-Laanese government in it, creating a three-worlds polity focused on reconstruction and storming the heavens (especially against thinking machines).

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

First Impressions from D&D 5E

Last month, me and my group began exploring D&D 5E, as a break between our D&D 3.5E and our ACKS game planned for a month or two into the future. I ordered the D&D 5E starter box, as well as the Player's Hand-Book (PHB), from Amazon.com, and we had a goodf chance to try them, two sessions by now. In the first session, the PHB hadn't arrived yet, so we used the Starter Box in conjunction with the free D&D 5E Basic Rules, and generated characters. The group is composed in the following manner:

Me (Omer) - the DM
Alon - plays Francis, Halfling Rogue (Criminal)
Avi - plays Argent, Human Cleric of Helm (Noble)
Shaked - plays Shane, Human Fighter (Soldier)

As you can see, no Arcane spellcaster in this group.

We played so far two sessions (the third will be played next Wednesday), each approximately 3 hours in length. In these 6 hours, we managed to create characters (about 2.5 hours, mostly getting used to the new rules), have some role-playing and travel, and three battles. We reached the Cragmaw Hideout (smaller goblin den) and have cleared part of it, more next time.

The main impression is this - we had LOTS of fun! All of us! Everybody was VERY satisfied with D&D 5E. Most of these people are used to 3.5E, while I'm used to both 3.5E and OSR games. And we all enjoyed 5E very much! So much that we're considering to convert "season 2" of our D&D 3.5E campaign to 5E!

The highlights of our experience are:

1) Combat is much faster than in 3.5E, and a bit slower than in the typical OSR ruleset (such as BFRPG). It is less tactical than in 3.5E, but more interesting in terms of stuff PCs can do than many OSR games. All in all, a good compromise. Players felt that their characters had something cool to do in each and every round, IN ADDITION to attacking and moving. In three and a half hours of post-chargen play, we had three significant battles, plus role-playing and exploration, a food break for us players and DM and some banter. This is faster than my experience with D&D 3.5E, where fights tend to last longer and be more complicated.

2) The party no longer needs a dedicated healer, except for emergencies. In three fights where characters were wounded, our Cleric did not cast a single (!) Cure Wounds spell, but rather concentrated on being an awesome combatant and, once, cast Bless (a buff requiring concentration). Why? Because there are many ways for characters to renew their hit-points, from 1-hour Short Rests (where you roll your Hit Dice for HP healed, e.g. a 1st-level Fighter can, on one Short Rest a day, roll 1d10 +CON bonus and heal that in HP), to the Fighter's Second Wind ability (renewed after each Short Rest). This did not feel too unnatural, too, as the fighter now feels very tough, and able to shake off mass damage, while the 15-minute adventuring day is gone.

3) Combat is always interesting, despite being simpler than in 3.5E and 4E. The main reason for this, I think, is Bonus Actions - various abilities you can use IN ADDITION to your main action (e.g. attack). So you don't have to choose between attacking and being cool, you can do both, all while not being overpowering (these Bonus Actions usually are not game-breaking in their implications but rather add coolness and options to combat). The simple task system also encourages characters to try out new things, and not stick to the rules.

4) D&D 5E is VERY easy for the DM to adjudicate. Very much so. In a nutshell, you have a small number of skills, and you are either proficient in a skill or not; if proficient, you roll 1d20 + ability modifier + proficiency bonus (proficiency bonus ranges from +2 at level 1 to +6 at level 20). There are much less modifiers than in 3.5E; instead, a task could be either normal, at a disadvantage (roll 2d20 and pick the lowest) or at an advantage (roll 2d20 and pick the highest). You can either have an advantage and a disadvantage and these are not cumulative. So adjudicating a new thing a player wants to do is simply a matter of figuring out which skill is most appropriate, deciding whether there is an advantage or disadvantage involved, and selecting a difficulty class (I used 10 for easy tasks, 15 for moderate and 20 for hard). Always everything can be adjudicated this way.

5) The system seems to encourage role-playing and getting players into their characters by a system of background character hooks, such as personality traits and faults. playing by these hooks gives you Inspiration - a one-time chance to gain an Advantage on any one roll (or cancel a Disadvantage). Inspiration is not cumulative and cannot be accumulated so hoarding is discouraged. In actual play this system led to more role-playing than I used to see in 3.5E.

All in all? A great experience. It isn't going to replace ACKS as the go-to campaign system, but it might as well replace 3.5E for us for "new-school" play and maybe even for certain "old-school" things.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Traveller: Liftoff is now Crowdfunding!

Heads up: yesterday, 13Mann, a well-known RPG publisher from Germany, has launched a crowdfunding campaign for Traveller: Liftoff, a beginners' box for Mongoose Traveller. What I've seen so far from its art is gorgeous to say the least; and the writing I can find in its free online drafts is excellent. I'll help fund this soon, and I call all Traveller fans to pitch in as well - this is going to be awesome!