Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Review of Ship Files: Polixenes Class Courier

Ruleset: Cepheus Engine/OGL 2d6 Sci-Fi
Author: Michael Johnson
Artist: Ian Stead
Size: 25 pages
Price: $3.99

Grade: 5 out of 5

This product is a high-quality ship book. While the background material is not as expansive as in some of the Clement Sector books, for example, this book provides a highly detailed and highly useable starship which you could easily insert into any Cepheus or Traveller campaign. The 100-ton Polixenes Class Courier is, essentially, the good ol’ Scout/Courier, but in a more elegant “airframe” form. It has two variants. The main difference between them is fuel storage, with the longer-range one capable of 2-Jump-2. I wonder why it doesn’t have Jump Drive B to provide it with Jump-4 capabilities if it already has the fuel for this (I guess that this is a TL11 design?). Each variant gets a deck-plan in the book itself, and the regular variant also gets a color deck-plan. You also get the deck-plans and ship record sheets in separate, ultra-high-res JPEG files for your own printing.

Everything gets wonderful renders, including several paint-job variants of the ship and an Air/Raft it may carry (in its regular variant, that is). This also includes full Cepheus Engine ship (and air/raft!) stats and ship record sheets.

All in all, this is an excellent book. I now wonder, will the author publish his Terran Union setting itself in a later book? It sounds interesting...

Highly recommended!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Review of Clement Sector Core Setting Book 2nd Edition

Ruleset: Cepheus Engine/OGL 2d6 Sci-Fi

Author: John Watts

Size: 272 pages

Price: $19.99

Grade: 4 out of 5

Reading through the Clement Sector book brings back fond memories. The author, John Watts, wrote a book in the spirit and general format of my old Outer Veil - my first published product. His setting is different, of course, but the overall atmosphere and product design are similar. Great minds think alike!

The Clement Sector is an independent setting for the Cepheus Engine, and by extension - for Traveller. It is set in a remote sector of the galaxy which was reachable from Earth only by means of a wormhole. The wormhole collapsed relatively recently, stranding the colonists on the far side of the galaxy. By its very nature, this sector is underdeveloped. Much of it is open frontier and a good amount of subsectors are either unsettled - some are even unexplored - or very sparsely inhabited. I like that - there is room for exploration and colonization and many, many lawless frontier worlds - perfect for adventuring.

I must say that love the setting’s grand vision and overall atmosphere - a wide-open frontier inhabited by people cut off from Earth and forced to fend for themselves. 

However, the main weakness of the Clement Sector Core Book also lies in its setting. It describes sixteen subsectors - one full sector - with full star-maps and UWPs. However, it barely describes the worlds themselves. Similar to Classic Traveller’s S3: The Spinward Marches, it presents a few of them very briefly. The book does not describe most worlds and instead refers the reader to other products, costing $19.99 each. This would probably have been acceptable in the 1970’s or the early 1980’s, but when today’s gamer pays $19.99 for a setting core book, he often expects more than this. As a side note, this was one of the greatest weaknesses of my own Outer Veil, which had similar format even though I (very partially) covered for it by adding five Patrons and a short adventure.

A short introduction and 20 pages of setting history precede this expansive but rather empty astrography chapter. While it is a good read, for the most part it is of relatively little relevance to the setting itself - the politics of the 21st century United States have little effect on events set in the 23rd century on the other side of the galaxy. Sure, some of the states created by this crisis, such as Cascadia, did affect the setting, but I feel that two or three paragraphs, instead of a dozen pages, would have been sufficient for the history preceding the Clement Sector’s colonization.

The real value of this Core Book, however, lies in its massive character generation chapter. This is, in my opinion, one of the best treatments of 2d6 OGL or Cepheus Engine or Mongoose Traveller character generation. The chapter oozes color added to your character and ensures that each character will have a detailed and unique background. The chapter greatly expands on the regular character generation rules. It includes detailed tables to generate your character’s childhood and youth; a mind-boggling number of careers with d66 event tables and 2d6 mishap tables; and pre-enlistment options, again with their own event tables. There are homeworld skills tailored to the various Clement Sector colonies, but the Core Book does not describe their vast majority. However, it would be easy to replace those with homeworld skills for the planets of your own campaign. There are no known alien species in the setting (though there is some evidence of their existence), but humanity did “uplift” a number of animals, from dolphins to bears, and the book provides detailed rules for generating and playing members of these species (You can play a sentient, upright grizzly!) as well as genetically-modified humans. I must emphasize again - this chapter is amazing. You will also find it extremely easy to adapt it to any colonial sci-fi setting. The character generation chapter alone - which takes a whopping 45% of the book (!) - is well worth the $19.99 price of this product.

A few additional rules and a short discussion of technology in this setting follow the wonderful character generation section. There are quite good experience and character advancement rules and some alterations to the Cepheus Engine skill list. The technology section is relatively unremarkable except for the Zimm Drive - this setting’s Jump-2 Drive equivalent - and the Mindcomp. The former is very similar to a jump engine and could jump and distance up to two parsecs, with reduced transit time for closer destinations (e.g. 3.5 days to jump one parsec away), unlike the default Cepheus/Traveller J-Drive. The latter is a cybernetically-implanted computer, presented in a relatively interesting manner with its own unique rules and software. Oh, and there is a Handcomp which looks like a combination of the Pip Boy from Fallout and the Omnitool from Mass Effect!

The Clement Sector Core Book provides five setting-specific starships: a 300-ton Merchant, a 400-ton Yacht, a 300-ton Scout, a 800-ton Freighter, and a 1,200-ton Destroyer. The chapter does not provide TLs but all designs are seemingly TL11 and generally useable with whatever Traveller setting you prefer. All include excellent-quality deck plans and good renders. The merchant has an interesting design with a “saucer” lower deck and an engine nacelle/bridge section above and behind it (slightly reminiscent of the USS Enterprise of Star Trek fame); its lower deck does utilize its round shape for a less-orthodox radial layout. The Yacht is a traditional wedge and carries a 50-ton Cutter. The Scout is a round “flying saucer, but for some reason, its deck-plans, for the most part, fail to utilize its oval shape and instead opt for a rectangular layout surrounded by fuel. The freighter is excellent and interesting - an unstreamlined dispersed structure carrying six detachable cargo pods - a bit similar to the common freighters of Babylon 5 and Mass Effect. The destroyer is also top notch - a classical Babylon 5 or Halo elongated, unstreamlined design; it is also satisfyingly armed and armored with 8 points of armor, Meson bays, and Fusion bays - just as expected from a Traveller warship. The ship chapter concludes with a handy starship identification and size comparison diagram.

There are also handy, but mostly run-of-the-mill, starship operation rules, the highlight of which are wonderful wilderness fuelling mishap tables (applicable to almost any Traveller universe).

There is a short, 27-page setting information section at the end of the book - vastly dwarfed by the subsector charts and character generation rules. It presents seven corporations and four other organizations and only (!) four pages of setting politics. The corporate descriptions are mostly corporate history and contain a few good plot hooks. There is a Traveller's Aid Society equivalent (the Captain's Guild). The highlight of this chapter is a group called (surprise!) the Gypsy Knights who are "a group formed to travel across the colonized worlds helping those who are in need". There is also a religion/cult/terrorist organization called Solar Purity who are opposed to human presence on the Clement Sector side of the Conduit, or (in the case of moderates), preserve nature as far as possible. It reminds me of the "Reds" in Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy; you can use them both as terroristic villains and as patrons hiring the PCs to protect this or that planet from human environmental destruction.

Politically, the Clement Sector is - for the most part - a collection of independent worlds. The only multi-world polity is six-world the Hub Federation. Unfortunately (from a Referee's standpoint), the Federation has an insular policy, missing the adventure opportunities presented by expansionism. The far more interesting (one-world) polity is Cascadia of the eponymous Cascadia Subsector, which has a strong interventionist and expansionist policy fuelled by a faith in "Manifest Destiny"; I would have preferred, though, that it would have had several colonies or at least vassal/client worlds for more interesting politics. There are also two new religions presented in this book - in addition to all the Terran faiths which came with humans to the Clement Sector; both present opportunities for conflict, especially the second one, Caxtonism, which is, in a nutshell, an expansionist proselyting cult.

There is a brief discussion of aliens in the Clement Sector. There are no known live aliens but the Terran colonists have found a few alien artifacts, hinting to alien life present somewhere in the universe. The big plot here is the Alien Research Network - ARN - a crackpot (or so people in the setting believe) group following various alien-related conspiracy theories. Still, the opportunities for serious xenoarchaeology are very limited in the canonical Clement Sector.

The book ends with a four-page discussion of possible campaign ideas. Most are typical Traveller ones - active military service, mercenaries, exploration, crime, trading and so on - but there are also plot hooks about working as a Gypsy Knight or trying to find the way back home despite the Conduit's collapse.

Visually, the book is very readable and well laid-out. All art - and there is plenty of art - is CGI, similar to Outer Veil. This is understandable, as color CGI is far more affordable than color hand-drawing, allowing the author to put more art into his book. The art is always relevant to the topic at hand and the book is very readable if a little ‘heavy’ on older tablets. All artwork and maps are excellently high-res.

The bottom line: An excellent character-generation book paired with a bare-bone frontier setting.

Grade: 4 out of 5

Review: Caennai Class Merchantman by Out of my Mind Games

Caennai Class Merchantman is a ship book published for Mongoose Traveller, 2nd Edition, by Out of my Mind Games. It describes a 500-ton armed and armored merchantman capable of carrying an additional 250 tons in an externally-mounted cargo pod (for a total tonnage of 750 tons, which reduces drive performance). The purpose of this ship seems to be the secure transport of expensive (or dangerous!) cargos, or transport through dangerous space

The product provides full Traveller stats for the ship and its potential cargo pods, as well as deck plans and a render of the ship. The ship itself has an interesting design - an elongated, blocky design reminiscent of the Sulaco from Aliens or of the Earth starships from Babylon 5, as opposed to the vastly overused "wedge" shapes. This is a good, refreshing change. However, the author missed an opportunity to design a non-streamlined ship - and the ship does look unstreamlined in its render - with integral hangarage for interface craft. Instead, it can fly through an atmosphere but not really land (though it can hover over the ground by anti-gravity). I find this somewhat sad, as the Traveller deck plan market is flooded with streamlined ships and unstreamlined ones are much less common - and thus interesting.

Personally, as a Referee, I would have removed the streamlining and reduced the common area and the cargo bay a bit to fit in a Ship's Boat/

The deck plans are low-res and unlabeled. The product describes the general contents of each of the three decks below the deck plan itself, but the deck plan is not always clear - which is a shame as this ship is interesting in its design. The layout is very basic but readable.

The great thing about this product, however, is its cargo pod system - a welcome unorthodox feature of ship design. This also allows for all sorts of interesting uses, including using this ship for exploration with a large laboratory/sensor pod, for example. It can also mount a "Docking Jig" carrying small craft - and I'd bet that some creative captains would convert the entire cargo pod into a fighter bay for an instant carrier (or pirate "Battlewagon"!).

Other very good features include a fully-detailed sample ship with a full crew, good adventure seeds for using the ship in a campaign, and flavorful details about the ship itself.

The bottom line is that this is an interesting, though flawed, product. This ship can be an excellent addition to any Traveller campaign.

Grade: 3.5 out of 5

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Review: RHI Sandpiper Light Trader by Out of my Mind Games

RHI Sandpiper Light Trader is a ship book published for Mongoose Traveller, 2nd Edition, by Out of my Mind Games. It describes three varieties of a 100-ton starship originally intended as a trader - the original trader version, a militarized gunship, and a "star ambulance" version. It includes a good description of the ship with enough flavor and color to make the ship relatively unique. Each variety has a description, MGT2 stats, a deck-plan, and a render. The deck plans are very simple but serviceable and the renders are solid but nothing to write home about. The layout is very simple but readable.

For some reason, the book does not mention the ship's size (100 tons) until you reach the stats on p.5 - neither on the cover nor in the introduction nor in the technical details section on p.4.

The one thing which I love in this otherwise unremarkable ship book are the clever designs - the author managed to cram a Jump-3 drive, its fuel, and 30 tons of cargo into a 100-ton trader, and eight marines (!) on a 110-ton gunship.

All in all, a solid, useful booklet about an interesting small starship which you can drop into almost any Traveller campaign.

Grade: 4 out of 5

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Lurian Trailing Cluster 2 - The Lost Flame of Prometheus

Stellagama Publishing proudly presents:

Lurian Trailing Cluster 2 - The Lost Flame of Prometheus!

Recovering the Lost Flame of Prometheus is a major undertaking. Anyone backing an expedition like this would typically engage a group of highly professional individuals, dedicated to the singular goal of the advancement of human knowledge and the re-establishment of interstellar civilization in the Lurian Trailing Cluster.

Instead, a group of player characters will be mounting an expedition.

The mythical Flame of Prometheus, an immense data archive that contained all the knowledge of human civilization, was lost during the Deluge, centuries ago. Now that humans have begun to explore the systems of the Lurian Trailing Cluster, many are desperate to discover the fate of the Flame of Prometheus and locate its final resting place. In it, they might find the lost knowledge needed to rekindle interstellar civilization!

But finding the Flame is only half the problem because not everyone wants it found…

Lurian Trailing Cluster Book 2—The Lost Flame of Prometheus is a supplement designed for Stars Without Number, by Sine Nomine Publishing. It contains detailed descriptions of five new systems in the Lurian Trailing Cluster, complete with NPCs, new vehicles, starship designs and strange life forms. It also contains a full campaign outline for an expedition to locate the Lost Flame of Prometheus, including allies, enemies, monsters, encounters, facilities, and plots to drive a sector-changing treasure hunting adventure campaign.

Get it HERE!

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Unboxing the printed Near Space poster-map

As one of the authors of Near Space, I wanted to see for myself how the printed Near Space poster map looks in reality. Thus, I ordered a copy from our store at Zazzle - you can call it a "proofing copy", though the product definitely does not need much proofing as I am very satisfied with how it turned out.

Map design by Omer Golan-Joel, map by Ian Stead.

The poster map has thus arrived at my home in Yavne, Israel. Here is how its unboxing looks like:

Monday, October 31, 2016

Simple mass-combat rules for Classic Traveller - draft

I am thinking about a quick "semi-mass-combat" system to complement my Quick and Dirty vehicle rules - some sort of "Striker Ultralight".

The intention is to simplify the bookkeeping load when dealing with many NPC combatants, such as a full Mercenary Cruiser's load of mercs show up under the PCs command or opposed to the PCs, when playing a "Rorke's Drift" type of defense by the PCs, and so on.

This does not come as a replacement for Book 1 combat but rather as an expansion of it concerned with somewhat larger forces. If there will be enough interest in the rules, I will consider building them into a simple, "self-contained" wargame-type system.

My current idea goes as follows:

Book 1 rules apply unless noted otherwise. This includes combat rounds, the fact that all actions simultaneous (but see the Optional Initiative rule below), stamina, attack rolls, cover, surprise, and so on.

Grunts and squads
Assume that 'grunt' or 'thug' NPCs have Skill-0 for any relevant weapon they carry or operate. Grunts are generally run-of-the-mill soldiers who went through boot camp and know how to operate as soldiers on the battlefield and use their weapons but lack significant combat experience and are ineffective when not part of a unit with a clear chain of command. Alternatively, they can also represent relatively well-organized criminals, pirates, or terrorists.

Grunts operate in squads - on average 8 members each. Consider all grunts in a Squad as "adjacent" for the sake of Book 1 and 4 rules (auto-fire, shotguns, etc.). The squad moves together and acts together.

Each squad has a leader - as noted in the Morale rules below. In most cases he will be a grunt by himself and there will be no need to list him as a character with full stats - simply note his Leader and Tactics skills in the squad description.

The short-hand squad description format is Number/Quality Armor Weapon Leader-skills. For example, a squad of 8 grunts with Cloth armor and Submachineguns with a leader of Leader-1 and Tactics-2 will be listed as:

8 grunts, Cloth, SMG, Leader-1, Tactics-2.

A Character (PC or significant NPC) may also lead a squad. In this case, he will shoot independently, move along with the squad, and use his own Tactics and Leader skills for squad purposes.

When using relatively small forces and a simple engagement, such as the PCs defending a stronghold against an enemy assault, you can use the Book 1 range band movement rules. However, in the case of more complex battlefields, you may use a map with markers (or pencil marks!) or even miniatures and a battle map (or terrain). In this case, a squad or character can move up to 25m and still act, or run 50m and forgo its action. A squad moves as one unit.

People don't like getting shot at.

At the beginning of a combat round, any squad in the open which was fired upon in the previous round must make a Morale roll (as per Book 1) to avoid using its movement to retreat to the nearest cover. This morale roll uses DMs as given in Book 1, with an additional DM -2 if fire upon by support-grade weapons. If there is no cover within 25m (or 1 range band) of its initial position, a retreating unit will forgo its action and run up to 50m (or 2 range bands) to the nearest cover.

Any unit behind cover which was fired upon in the previous round must succeed in a Morale roll to leave the cover. Add the leader's Leader skill to this roll. DM -2 if fired upon by Support weapons. This morale roll uses DMs as given in Book 1, with an additional DM -2 if fire upon by support-grade weapons.

When a squad loses its first member to enemy fire, and again when it has lost over half its members, it must make a Morale roll to avoid breaking and bailing out. Similarly, a squad which was under overwhelming fire (Referee's discretion) in the previous round must make a Morale roll to avoid breaking and bailing out.

A character with the Leader skill may attempt to rally a broken squad back into fighting shape. Throw 8+ to rally, DM +Leader skill. If the roll succeeds, the squad returns to normal function. If it fails, remove the squad from the battlefield. After the battle, the Referee will decide what happened to the troopers who bailed out.

Characters such as PCs and important NPCs, of course, do not have to make Morale rolls and may act as desired.

Fire combat
As noted above, Characters such as PCs and major NPCs shoot and are shot at by the Book 1 rules.

Shoot at grunt squads using the regular Book 1 rules including armor and range DMs. Note that all squad members are "adjacent" for the sake of group hits as in Book 1 and Book 4. When a shot hits a grunt, instead of rolling damage as usual, simply roll 1d6. The grunt is knocked out on 4-. A grunt is either active in combat or knocked out - light wounds don't matter. as far as the battle itself is concerned, the difference between a prolonged concussion, a serious injury, and death is irrelevant.

Each squad has one attack roll. Treat semi-automatic fire by a squad as an "automatic" attack as per Book 1 (multiple/group hits etc). Automatic fire by a whole Squad counts as Book 4 "10-round burst" fire (may hit up to 4 adjacent targets) and confers DM +2 to-hit. A squad with a light machine gun as a support weapon counts as shooting automatic fire even if the rest of the squad fires semi-automatic weapons. A squad below 4 members is ineffective and rolls for a single hit with no +DM unless firing automatic fire, in which case the whole Squad rolls with +1 DM and as a single automatic weapon.

Unseating a dug-in enemy with distant fire is difficult. Usually, getting rid of an enemy squad in cover requires an assault.

A squad my assault an enemy squad and/or PCs/major NPCs if they are within up to 50m (or 2 range bands) of its position.

Assaults are scary, and thus getting a squad to assault requires a Morale roll as per Book 1. If failed, the squad will not assault. This roll is subject to a further DM -2 if the squad is behind cover, as soldiers loathe getting out of cover and storming into incoming enemy fire.

The defender gets a free fire attack at the assaulters before being assaulted. This is regardless of the defender having fire before in this round or not. Morale rules for casualties apply here - an assault may be repelled by defender gunfire.

The assault itself requires both squads to roll 2d6. The higher roll wins. DM +1 to the defender; DM +1 if a squad carries weapons appropriate for CQB such as handguns, SMGs, bayonets, or assorted melee weapons; DM -2 for a squad at half strength or lower; DM +2 for a squad in Battledress; DM +the leader's Tactics skill; DM +any relevant weapon skill of a PC or major NPC leader.

All grunt members of the losing squads suffer a hit each, roll 1d6 each as usual. PCs on the losing side suffer a hit by the most common weapon carried by the winners (or the winners' leader if he is a major NPC) subject to the regular Book 1 or Book 4 rules. Surviving losers must make a Morale roll. If successful, they make an orderly retreat to the nearest cover outside the assaulted location. If failed, they either surrender or rout (Referee's choice). The winning squad suffers three hits to its grunts. A PC on the winning side will suffer an attack roll at a -4 penalty to-hit.

On a draw, each side suffers 3 hits to grunts and a regular attack roll on any PC or major NPC leader and will make another assault roll on the next round.

Optional advanced rules:

Traveller Book 1 assumes simultaneous action by all participants in the battle. When playing out a large engagement, however, such method might become unwieldy. Therefore, I propose the following rule:

Each battle has an Attacker and a Defender. The attacker starts with initiative - all of his units act first in the round, and the Defender's units act only after them. The action here is NOT simultaneous, so the side with initiative can kill or rout the enemy before its foe can react. For the purpose of Morale rules, if the attacker fired on a defender's unit in his phase of the battle, the defender is considered "under fire" in his phase of the same round.

Each round after the first, the defender may try to turn the tides of battle and seize the initiative. To do so, the overall commander of each side rolls 2D, DM +hisTactics skill. If the attacker rolls higher or on a draw, the attacker retains the initiative. If the defender rolls higher than the attacker, he may seize the initiative from him and act first from this round on. from the next round, the attacker may try to seize the initiative again.

Troop quality
The above rules assume generic soldiers or well-organized criminals as encountered on many battlefields. However, not all troops were created equal, and the Referee may decide to use varied troop qualities as an optional rule. There are three troop qualities: Rabble, Grunts (as above), and Hardened.

Rabble combatants are untrained, poorly organized combatants - usually a mob of civilians, inexperienced irregulars, or unorganized gang-members. Rabble combatants suffer DM -2 to hit0 and assault rolls and DM -2 to all Morale rolls. Also, when losing a Morale roll which would have caused a regular unit to retreat to cover, roll 1d6; on 3-, the unit routs and bails out.

Grunts are as given above.

Hardened troops are experienced, well-trained professional soldiers who retain their cool under fire under fire, such as veteran soldiers, intensively-trained combatants, and the better sorts of mercenaries. Hardened troops enjoy DM +2 to hit and assault rolls and DM +2 to all Morale rolls. Also, when losing a Morale roll which would have caused a lesser unit to break and rout, roll 1d6; on 5+, the unit makes an orderly retreat to the nearest cover and remains in battle.