Today is May 1, or May Day. My personal May Day celebrations are not red, but black. As in out in the black of space. Traveller role-playing game (RPG) players celebrate May Day as the anniversary of the release of Traveller by Marc Miller in 1977 in part because of the words on the cover of the original digest boxed set.
I started playing in 1979 and I have no intention of stopping. Ardwulf has a very nice video overview of the Traveller RPG series:
No Quaint Adventure Here
What makes Traveller so special to me? As one of the first role-playing games you might think the design is quaint. I disagree; that quaintness hides a simple, powerful game that oozes adventure.
To many Traveller players, the Third Imperium setting is Traveller. This is certainly how GDW came to view the game in its MegaTraveller and Traveller: The New Era rules. Marc Miller’s Traveller (T4) was Third Imperium but in a different milieu. The Third Imperium also runs through Traveller 5 and other versions of Traveller like Steve Jackson’s GURPS Traveller. In contemporary times, Mongoose Publishing went as far as to put the Third Imperium setting behind an IP-grabbing pay-for-play license. Those shenanigans in part gave rise to Cepheus Engine and alternate Traveller universes like Independence Games’ The Clement Sector or Zozer Games’ HOSTILE. The ultimate “back to the future” rules set is the white cover facsimile edition of Traveller: The Classic SF RPG Rules which goes back to the original “setting-less” Traveller.
Once players embrace the setting-less Traveller many adventure opportunities open up. The earliest opportunities actually occur in character creation.
In a normal Traveller campaign, player characters (PCs) start adventuring after character creation. The lifepath process builds their story. In Classic Traveller the details of that backstory are very sparse; basically the PC served a Term (4 years) in some Service. In those four years a skill was maybe learned or characteristic changed and there was a chance for promotion and/or award. Of course, the PC hoped to survive and not die in character creation!
In later versions of Traveller the details of those four-year terms were developed. In the Mongoose Traveller or Cepheus Engine versions, the details added can include identifying a particular mission or battle or event that occurred during a term of service that somehow had an impact on the character. These events are often interesting and inevitably give rise to a desire to “tell more.” The usual response at that point is for the player to start writing out a backstory.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
What if instead of writing out a backstory you play it? I have done this more than once using some version of homebrew solo gaming. There are now published rules available that can help like Solo Space Opera with Cepheus from Parts Per Million.
Take for example my character Vidad Toneas. I’m using Cepheus Deluxe (Stellagama Publishing, 2021) for character creation here.
Step 1: Characteristics.
- Roll six characteristics (4, 11, 6, 8, 7, 5) and assign.
- STR 7 / DEX 11 / END 8 / INT 6 / EDU 5 / SOC 4 – 7B8654.
- Characteristic DMs (DEX +1 / EDU -1 / SOC -1).
Step 2: Homeworld Skills. Frontier Colony – Survival 1.
Step 3: Career. [One thing I miss in Cepheus Engine that was in Classic Traveller is enlistment rolls. I mean, you had to try to get into the career field you wanted from the start but no more. Sigh…] Term: 1. Select Army. Rank 0 (Private).
- Service Skills: Gun Combat 1, Recon 0, Heavy Weapons 0, Melee Combat 0, Driving 0, Athletics 0.
- Specialist Skills: Stealth 1, Survival +1 (2).
- Career Events Table: “Bug Hunt! You fight hostile xenofauna. Throw Gun Combat 8+; if you succeed, gain Animals or Survival. If you fail, roll on the Injury Table.”
Of note, in Cepheus Deluxe players don’t calculate Stamina or Lifeblood until Step 4: Calculate Stamina and Lifeblood but as they will be needed in any fight they are computed now with Stamina = 8 / Lifeblood = 16.
Now, let’s hunt some bugs!
While at this point it would maybe be logical to shift my campaign from Cepheus Engine to the sourcebook Colonial Marines Operations Manual (Free League Publishing, 2021) that uses the Year Zero Engine of ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game (Free League Publishing, 2019), I just want a scene and not a system change. So instead I am going to create my own little battle scenario. For inspiration, I dug into my library and found Bug Hunts: Surviving and Combating the Alien Menace. This book is part of the Dark Osprey series and is written by Mark Latham and illustrated by Darren Tan and aRU-MOR.
The scenario is inspired by the section “Escape from Lycea” that sees a very violent first contact with a Xeno. As Bug Hunts describes:
Against the relentless storm of blood-red snow and hail that battered the marines, it was almost impossible to find any trace of life on the surface of Lycea. Their multi-trackers were useless, and the visual targeting matrices in their environmental suits suffered massive interference. In such extreme conditions the marines had to rely on their own senses; which is how the bugs got so close before being detected.Bug Hunts, “Escape from Lycea”
Now that the scene of battle is set, what about the Xeno?
From the raging blizzard came a horde of scurrying, clawed creatures, covered in thick bony plates and carrying what looked like weapons — albeit ones made of organic matter. The eight-limbed bugs looked at first glance like spiders, although the creatures’ scaly hide and intricate patternation placed them more akin to large reptiles than arachnids.Bug Hunts, “Escape from Lycea”
The chapter for Xenofauna Encounters in Cepheus Deluxe also offers an easy pathway to developing the Xeno in this encounter. Using Bug Hunts as inspiration, I’m going to “guide” the rolls at certain points but still use the process to see what evil is hatched.
Step 1 – Choose animal’s habitat. Using Bug Hunts as inspiration I rule by GM fiat that the Terrain and Ecosystem is Broken and Walking. I note the Subtype and Size DM of -3 each.
Step 2 – Ecological niche and subtype. Rolling on the Animal Niche Table yields “Scavanger.” The Animal Subtypes is subject to a DM -3 and yields “Hijacker” which doesn’t quite fit so I change it to “Killer.”
Step 3 – Size, stamina, lifeblood, and damage. I again ignore the DM-3 for size and instead roll 3d6 on the Animal Size table and get a weight of 400 kilograms. The Stamina is 3D (10 rolled) and Lifeblood of 6D (27 rolled). There is a Damage Modifier of +2D which is ignored because I will treat the Stinger as a projectile weapon.
Step 4 – Weapons, armor and speed. I invoke DM fiat and rule “Projectile” for weapon. The Aracknyd Stinger has a range of 10/50 and scores 4D damage with an unlimited magazine. The Stinger “brainstem” grants an automatic DM +1 to hit. Armor is 2D-7+9 with 10 rolled and another 2 added for Scavenger for 12 Armor. I roll a 6 against “Scavenger – Hijacker” for base speed and get a multiple of x3 or 30 meter per action.
Step 5 – Animal Reactions. As a Scavenger-Hijacker the baseline attack is 7+ and Flee 6- but recall I changed the Subtype to Killer. A Carnivore-Killer has baseline Attack 6+ / Flee 3- but I want a more aggressive threat so use DM fiat to make this Attack 4+ / Flee 2-.
Here I look to have an Army Squad of five troopers wearing Encased armor suit (Protection 9) with four carrying Pulse Rifles (Range 200/400, Damage 3D, Magazine 40, Auto 3) and one carrying a Support Laser (Heavy Weapon, Range 100/400, Damage 6D, Magazine 1, Blast 6, Bulky, 1AV hit). Throw in some environmental factors and I am ready to play!
Of (some) note, while it is easy to play out this battle using the rules for Cepheus Engine I could also play a skirmish miniatures game that plays fast like Five Parsecs from Home – Third Edition: Solo Adventure Wargaming from Modiphius Entertainment.
Ambush at Lycea
“This sucks,” thought Vivdad. The red snow was disconcerting to walk on. Not that Vivdad really knew for he didn’t have this thing called “snow” on his homeworld. But walking through the crunchy, red-frozen liquid under a dim red sky in arctic cold temperatures was not his idea of a good time. To make matters worse, he was on trail as the squad moved. Nia had point followed by Valna with Corporal sTon next and then Sarge. Vivdad was last and worried about getting separated every time he checked behind the team; visibility was no more than 50 meters…and often much, much less.
“Movement, Zone 11!” Nia hissed. At a simple gesture from Sarge the squad fanned out with Valna on the left, Nia in place, and sTon moving to the right. Sarge came up behind Nia and Vivdad sat in the middle ready to go either way as Sarge directed.
From out the dim dark they came. Or he should say “it” came because Vivdad had never seen anything like, like this alien before. His HUD showed a yellow indicator on the suit’s BioLiquid Gathering Equipment (BiLGE) indicating full capacity.
“Fire!” roared Sarge. Well, so much for friendly first contact, thought Vivdad.
Simultaneously, the first two things opened fire with a weird-looking, uh, gun that looked like it had a brain attached. Vivdad got a good look because the thing had run into less than 20 meters distance, and then closer.
The next few minutes were a complete blur for Vivdad. At one point Vivdad was knocked down. His armor was chipped away at. More things came. And then more. Vivdad screamed. His gun ran dry. He reloaded. He screamed. Again and again.
As suddenly as it started the battle stopped. Vivdad was barely conscious, but he could hear Sarge screaming on the radio calling for immediate dust-off (dust? here?). Through his broken visor Vivdad saw Nia and Valna. Well, it was supposed to be Valna but why was she in so many pieces? sTon kneeled over him, huge scars in his armor suit. “Never knew sTon’s blood was copper,” thought Vivdad as he closed his eyes…
Vivdad survived this battle…barely. His injuries are serious enough I rule that a roll on the Injury Table is in order. The result is “nearly killed” with physical reductions to all characteristics (now 496654). Further, Vivdad loses a leg which is replaced by a Cyberleg (Cybernetics Grade B) which affects all future social rolls with a DM -2.
Even if Vivdad had been killed (which can happen in Classic Traveller character generation) at least some adventuring for the player has transpired—the death has become more than just a die roll but a mini-adventure. A key element of the potential adventuring universe has also been established—in this case the Araknyd threat. Further, this threat is very, very personal to Vivdad.
Character creation can now continue using the normal rules. Even if I don’t do another “backstory” adventure again before mustering out the seeds for a future campaign have been set.
And it all started from three Little Black Books over 40 years ago today…
Feature image courtesy RMN
The opinions and views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone and are presented in a personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Navy or any other U.S government Department, Agency, Office, or employer.
RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2023 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0