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!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Using the Traveller: New Era setting with Classic Traveller rules

The Traveller: New Era (T:NE) setting offers many advantages for sandbox-style play, among them limited interstellar authority, an actual "hard" explorable frontier, and a good framework for adventure. However, personally, I care little for the T:NE "house system" rules, which tend to be more complex and less suitable to my tastes than Classic or Mongoose Traveller. So the question arises: If you want to play in the rich, dynamic Traveller: New Era setting, what ruleset would fit it? Somewhat ironically, I think that the Classic Traveller (CT) ruleset (as presented in the three Little Black Books and in the Traveller Book) fits this milieu perfectly. Let's have a look at some of the features of CT which work great with the T:NE setting or similar post-apocalyptic space-opera settings:

First, Book 3 world generation creates a very wide variety of worlds, usually very different from each other in technology and population, and sometimes having very strange combinations of starport, population and environment. Sometimes very low-tech worlds would sit right next to highly-developed ones. This makes less sense in a well-developed, stable Imperium than in the post-apocalyptic Wilds of T:NE. Why do so many worlds have TL 3-8? Because of the Collapse. Why are there higher-tech worlds around? These are recovering worlds. Why a Starport-A and TL-F but only 1,000 inhabitants? These are the last surviving people on a previously heavily-populated world, wandering the empty halls of their old starport and obsessively maintaining it in hope that, some  day, the Imperium will return. Why so many nasty dictatorships around? With the central Imperial government gone, each world went its own way, and many had to enact harsh measures to survive. So an "out of the box" subsector from Book 3 could be a perfect T:NE setting...

Second, it is easier to explain the heavy, low-tech-looking computers of CT in the framework of the T:NE setting than in the "golden age" Imperium. This works the same way as in the Battlestar Galactica remake from a decade or so ago: people have reverted to much lower level of electronics/information technology in order to make it difficult for AI enemies to infect ships. So you have compartmentalized computers and maybe even vacuum tubes and bulky primitive computers on ships, and bulky TL11 hand computers, working in such a primitive way to resist the Virus; any modern computer system would be a prime target for infection. Note that in my take on T:NE, the old Imperium had perfectly modern computers, and the bulky Book 2 computers are a new product of the New Era...

Third, Book 2 (and The Traveller Book) are small-ship rulesets. The big Imperium depicted in later CT products, as well as in MegaTraveller (MT), has very big ships. T:NE, on the other hand, reverts to a small-ship universe, as all, or most, big ships were destroyed in the Rebellion and Collapse - or worse. So, once again, a 1,200 ship is a battlecruiser and a 300 ton frigate matters in actual "big" combat. So, again, Classic Traveller and its "proto-Traveller" assumptions make perfect sense in the T:NE setting...

So how would I approach a hypothetical T:NE game using CT rules? I think that the best approach would not be using the Reformation Coalition, though this is a good option, but rather roll up a new two-subsector Traveller sandbox, using the general T:NE setting ideas but using or ignoring Traveller canon as it fits the setting; I think this will work better for CT to roll up two new subsectors rather than "convert" official subsectors into the New Era using the T:NE or the T:NE: 1248 conversion rules. The rest would be constructing the specific setting as desired... And using all the good bits from T:NE (such as the detailed government ratings from Path of Tears).

Monday, August 18, 2014

On the Beauty of Classic Traveller

Classic Traveller. The game that started it all. One of the first SFRPGs in history. Sure, it is rough around the edges, and its rules have many "holes" in them (vehicle combat comes to mind), but the game itself is a thing of beauty, from both a game design and an old-school play perspective. It is a work of art; returning to it after playing many other and newer games is refreshing. But to truly appreciate it, one must see it as its own game, maybe even take the first three Little Black Books (or the Traveller Book which is an edited and improved version of them) as their own thing, apart from later, supplemental Classic Traveller or later Traveller rulesets.

So what is the beauty of Classic Traveller?

The beauty of Classic Traveller is a character sheet which is a few rows of text on an index card, smaller in size even than the typical old-school D&D character sheet, yet describes a complete character. From these few stats, randomly generated, one can infer a very interesting and complete character, all without needing too many rules to reference. HERE is an example of such inference from the Ancient Faith in the Far Future blog - the character is three short rows, yet the experienced player, or Referee, can easily extrapolate much background and personality details, enough for years of play.

The beauty of Classic Traveller is generating a complete character in 5 minutes (believe me, I've tried this with a timer). Sure, your character may die during chargen. But who cares? You "wasted" a few minutes of your life playing a game. No harm done - five minutes more and another character will spring forth. All of this while allowing for much diversity of characters.

The beauty of Classic Traveller is building a starship in twenty minutes; this starship has no "stat block", but rather a paragraph of readable English text, which is enough to run it. Much variety is possible, and the "building block" simplicity of the ship creation system allows for the Referee to quickly add new components (say, hydroponics, a shipboard hospital and so on) to Book 2 ships. One ship in a paragraph - this is beautiful, especially when compared to the long strings of hex digits serving as the "stat blocks" of ships in later iterations of Traveller.

The beauty of Classic Traveller is that a mere 2-3 pages of tables create a wonderfully complex world of weapons, each with its own nuances, each fitting a niche. No need for ultra-complex penetration rolls; all is included in these simple tables. CT weapons have their own "character", and their own uses. The emergent complexity here is breathtaking.

The beauty of Classic Traveller is that a few digits define a world, and are enough to infer much from them, all while allowing for much nuances and for an endless variety of worlds. The stats suit adventurers and their needs - What starport services are available? Can I take my laser rifle ashore? Which politics will I have to deal with? Can I breath the air? Can I refuel from oceans/gas-giants/glaciers? All of this is very quick to generate and very fun to infer from.

A beautiful system, isn't it?

Sunday, August 10, 2014

What the Traveller: New Era setting got right for Sandbox Play

Traveller: New Era (TNE) is reputed to be a controversial version of Traveller; from what I've heard, when this game was released back in 1993, it split the fan-base, as not all players were content with the significant changes in the setting, not to mention a new and different ruleset (the GDW "house system" also used in Twilight: 2000). Indeed, much criticism has been leveled at the Virus - a self-replicating cyber/bio weapon capable of taking over most computerized system and the reason for the TNE post-apocalyptic condition, as well as at the departure from the "Golden Era" milieu of Traveller (or its Rebellion extension). In this post, I will avoid the subject of the Virus for the most part, though I will mention some of its impact on the setting. Instead, I intend to talk about a few key elements of the New Era setting, which I consider to be very good for the game, especially for a sandbox game, regardless of the ruleset (which I do not care much for).

The first is the removal of the over-powerful overbearing interstellar government (Imperium) of late Classic Traveller and of Megatraveller. While the Imperium, indeed, is a well-loved setting among many fans, it does have its limitations, especially in its "modern" form - a very powerful, omnipresent government holding multiple multi-kton battleships in every subsector. This (the "Golden Era" and the Rebellion) is a setting where many elements are far beyond the reach and influence of players, and players typically are pretty low on the political foodchain. The "endgame" elements of a sandbox - that is, influencing planetary and interstellar politics and maybe even establishing a pocket-empire ruled by the PCs - are very difficult to pull off with interstellar "big government" and big corporations running around. TNE removes them, albeit in a very brutal and total way, but suddenly there are much less "big boys" running around and either foiling the PCs plans, or making them redundant. Less authority figures around is a good thing for a sandbox, as it makes the PCs important, and makes their decisions meaningful. Even when governments ARE involved, they are much smaller affairs than, say, the Megatraveller factions, and thus much more amenable to PC influence.

The second, and related point is the opening up of a real frontier for actual exploration. A recurring problem with the "Golden Era" was that, unless you used semi-canonical peripheral regions such as the Outer Rim Void of A4: Leviathan fame, there wasn't a "hard" frontier to be found. Sure the Spinward Marches were a relative frontier, but they were fully explored and fully known, all a developed, or semi-developed, part of an existing interstellar empire. TNE wiped the map clean, and now whatever polity the PCs are part of (say, the Reformation Coalition) has a "hard" frontier around it, and, beyond it, vast tracts of space which is either unexplored for 70 years, or very minimally explored. So you can boldly go where no man has gone before.

The third is having an actual framework for adventure. The PCs are, by default, Space Vikings - government-sponsored explorers, raiders and privateers out to explore, and loot, the Wilds. This is somewhat akin to the "dungeon crawling" of old-school D&D - PCs are out there to recover treasure, make a name for themselves, and, eventually, topple tyrants and leave their mark on the setting. This also allows for "treasure" - high-TL goods recovered from dead 'boneyard' worlds and from regressed colonies. In a sandbox, this is very useful - PCs have a motivation to take risks, to explore, and to interact with the setting and with its factions, and it is also very easy to explain why a very diverse group of PCs work together on one starship (they are all out to get rich from off-world plunder). this becomes even better with a built-in patron for the PCs - the Reformation Coalition Exploration Service (RCES), who may provide adventure hooks and assistance, all while being unable to have a significant level of control over the PCs during the adventure itself (resources are limited, and, outside of the Coalition itself, interstellar government, or even significant RCES oversight, are very rare).

With the three elements above, TNE allows for many sandbox gaming possibilities, for exploration and for meaningful PC influence on the setting, all of which are very good things.

(Last but not least, on a side-note, TNE finally gave us a reason why Traveller computers, robotics and cybernetics were limited in scope and very bulky (other than the game being published in 1977, that is) - the reason given in the new (2000's) Battlestar Galactica. In other words, people deliberately opt for very primitive electronics to keep Virus infection risks at a bearable minimum.)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The roles of Wandering Monsters in old-school games

In old-school RPGs, wondering monsters had several roles.

1) The most important role, IMHO, was to turn time into a strategic resource. Even if you carry plenty of supplies and torches, random encounters are pretty frequent in a dungeon, and thus wasting time means risking encountering monsters, some of them quite powerful for your level. So every action which takes significant time, risks a wondering monster roll, and thus requires a strategic choice on part of the players: should they rest now, that they have expanded 50% of their resources, and thus risk encountering something nasty while they sleep - or rather press on (or leave the dungeon to rest in a safer place)? Should they spend a turn doing a "take 20" search of each and every room in the dungeon, and thus risk encountering a monster, or try and notice clues in their environment? Should they kick down every door they encounter (thus making a LOT of noise and forcing an immediate wondering monster roll), or try to use discretion? Once time has a concrete cost in risk of encountering monsters, you reduce the tendency of players to resort to "15-minute adventuring days" and "take 20 to search everything", by making such actions into meaningful choices rather than routine acts.

2) Making dungeons, and deep wilderness, actually dangerous in-game. Peasants avoid the Accursed Moor because it is haunted. PCs who venture there - take a risk of meeting undead. Not just set-piece undead in barrow mounds, mind you, but random undead - after all, it is the Moor where the dead are reputed to walk. A nasty place. Not a place to tread casually through. The same goes with entering the Ghoul Castle of Doom - hungry ghouls abound there, and not just in set-piece encounters - the place is crawling with them. On the other hand, you shouldn't roll too often for random encounters in civilized areas - ACKS, for example has one encounter check PER MONTH in civilized areas. This strikes home the reason why peasants stay close to civilization and shun the wilderness - there are bad things there out to eat you, and you have to go prepared.

3) Making things interesting for both DM and players. A typical DM has a style - the kind of monsters and encounters he or she is likely to set up. A good random-encounter table goes beyond that - something surprising might turn up, and make the game more interesting It also pushes for encounters which are not "level set" to the PCs, and thus might necessitate something other than combat - maybe negotiating with the dragon who turns up in a random encounter and bribing him with treasure, or running away from him - not everything the PCs encounter is a balanced fight or even a necessary fight.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

[Visions of Empire] The Cicek


This is something I have in mind for my Visions of Empire setting(s). The idea came to me when I was trying to imagine what the society of sentient Tokay Geckos will look like. The end result is quite different from a gecko, but similar in certain terms...

These are the Cicek - bipedal, though horizontally-oriented (think modern representation of theropods) warm-blooded reptilian-equivalents. Their ur-species predecessors were pouncers, mostly carnivorous though technically omnivorous, of approximately 100kg (200 pounds) each in weight, about 2 meters in length, balancing tail included. The body is covered with scales (color ranges from green to reddish-yellow depending on morph), and the jaws and teeth are well-developed for killing prey and tearing its flesh. They are originally grassland dwellers, and do not climb well, but spread into lightly forested areas as well before achieving full sentience.

Cicek show strong sexual dimorphism - the female is about 75kg and much smaller than the 100kg male. The overriding social instinct of the ur-species were highly different between males and females. Females were social, tolerated each other and cooperated in hunting, while males were highly antagonistic towards each other, and highly territorial, trying to kill and each other at sight. When climatic change and the introduction of larger prey into their habitat forced them into social units larger than a single male and his harem of several females, the males had to conquer their instinctive antagonism towards each other in order to cooperate. So Cicek culture, especially in regard to males, revolves around mitigating this aggression, though very elaborate and highly ritualized systems of politeness and honor which have evolved during early sentience in order to prevent cannibalism between the males of the same tribe. Despite all of this, even the modern Cicek male sees all other males as rivals; culture teaches him how to channel this rivalry into (usually) non-lethal avenues, such as competing for honor and (usually) non-lethal duels, but, at his most basic impulse, he is full of aggression towards any other male.

Female and male social systems work differently. Male social organization is hierarchical, with the weaker male submitting to the stronger male, while all the time looking for an opportunity to best him and take his place, while the dominant male sees his subordinates both as a resource and a threat. This is not just a physical competition, but also a social one; if a subordinate gains significantly more honor than his superior, he will replace him, possibly without a serious fight. Female society, on the other hand, is far less competitive, and far more egalitarian: a female sees her female tribe-mates as sisters, not as rivals. Females think of the good of their tribe and only then of their own good; males think of their own position in the ever-changing hierarchy and only then of the good of their tribe. Even today, Cicek possess somewhat differentiated economic and social systems for both sexes, competitive for males and cooperative for females.

The Cicek led, until relatively recently (several centuries before the current timeline), a TL1 tribal existence on their homeworld, bound into tribes of a few thousand Cicek each, possessing primitive metalworking techniques and agriculture based on herding. But then the Reticulans came - aliens who'd rather see others fight for them, than fight themselves; and, to them the 100-kg Cicek male, in all his predatory might and temper to match, looked like a great shock-trooper to fight Reticulan wars. So the Reticulans uplifted the Cicek, providing high-tech weapons and equipment to friendly tribes in return for recruiting Cicek mercenaries to fight for the Reticulans. This had a profound impact on Cicek society. While other species, such as Humans and Reticulans, have gone through millennia of cultural evolution to support more and more complex social forms and collective identities, the Cicek have received modern technology ready-made without all of this. Culturally, the Cicek are still strongly tribal, and have difficulties to form any higher collective identity - concepts such as "nation" or "Cicek-Kind" mean little to them, despite the fact that both Reticulans and Humans tried to introduce them into Cicek society. The modern Cicek is typically very loyal to his or her tribe, but feels very little affinity to any larger body of Cicek or even to the whole species. The introduction of modern technology also meant that within a few years, almost all tribes on the Cicek homeworld were using tanks and plasma guns to fight wars which, only a short while before that, were fought using bronze axes and composite bows. The homeworld became a very dangerous place indeed... So many Cicek tribes were quick to put their hands on starships (bought from Reticulan traders) and emigrate to far-away stars. The tribal nature of the whole affairs also meant that very soon, the Reticulans had only partial control over the Cicek tribes, as each tribe has its own independent will. Soon enough, Cicek mercenaries and pirates became very common all over known space.