It’s an obvious understatement to say technology plays an important role in the Traveller RPG universe. After all, this is science fiction! Although the default setting of Traveller deals with the far future (the 58th century) the original designers of Traveller-related wargames at Game Designers’ Workshop (GDW) in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s tried to keep the technology grounded (no pun intended). As they explained in Striker Book 3: Equipment published in 1981 –
A science fiction game must make assumptions about the nature of future technological developments. In addition to progressive refinements of current weapons and equipment, there are several areas of postulated advanced technology deserving of comment. In Striker, the attempt is made to base technology on principles that are at least logically explainable (even if far beyond present science), avoiding the introduction of mysterious “zapotron rays”.
Striker Book 3: Equipment, p. 4
In previous posts, I looked at the Personal/Tactical-scale and Strategic wargames developed around the Traveller RPG. Of the systems explored, only two (the Abstract System in Mercenary and Fifth Frontier War/Invasion:Earth) explicitly called out different technology levels between combatants as a modifier in combat. In all the other systems the difference of technology was often subsumed by equipment ratings; i.e. higher tech equipment often was more lethal. This is an imperfect representation of reality. Although firepower has often increased from generation to generation, modern (our present day) warfare has introduced other factors, such as precision, that make even “small” weapons more effective than a comparable device in the past.
Take for instance the US military’s GBU-39B Small Diameter Bomb (SDB). This bomb delivers a relatively small warhead (250lb/113kg class). When it strikes, the “damage roll” is not very substantial. The key to the effectiveness of the warhead is the technology embedded in it – the GPS/INS guidance that allows it to self-navigate with a high degree of precision to its target. Thus, the small explosive effect is delivered to (near) precisely the correct location.
How a wargame designer depicts the influence of technology in a wargame is a crucial design decision. Does one simply assume all the combatants are at the same relative technology level (“Tech Level” or TL in Traveller parlance) and simply ignore the issue? Or does one try to model the effects of the different technology? If one chooses to model the differences, can it be done in a manner that retain playability without bogging down the game system?
Here is where I think the fine game designers at Admiralty Trilogy Games might have the solution. Their challenge was how to “harmonize” gunnery and missile strikes across several generations of naval warfare starting from the late 1800’s with independent gun laying to the modern day with radars and GPS guidance into a common resolution system. Their (elegant) solution was to define each piece of equipment by the Generation (or Gunnery Standard) it was built with. The generational differences become modifiers for success – or failure. If one really wants you can see what effect a 1980’s EA-6B Prowler in a Final Countdown-like scenario may have against the radars of a mid-1940’s Imperial Japanese Navy carrier task force. That match up is literally what we want in a Traveller RPG wargame; how to compare/contrast forces potentially employing vastly different technological capabilities. The generational approach is also found in several space combat rules systems like Book 5 High Guard where the tech level differences of the ships computer is a modifier.
Traveller Combat System – Counterrevolutionary?
As I studied the various wargames associated with the Traveller RPG universe, one conclusion I keep coming back to is that the game mechanics all convey a very 1970’s view of warfare. The reining thought of that day was that lethality was going to keep increasing given greater firepower. You can see this in the weaponry from the Ironmongery sections of Book 4 Mercenary where you go from a TL7 Assault Rifle with 4D damage to the TL15 Fusion Gun Man Portable (FGMP-15) with 16D damage (let’s not even talk about the Field Artillery which does 20D damage). Sure, the Vietnam War showed hints of what precision guided weapons might be able to do -someday- but it was not until the Gulf War in 1991 (a decade after the publication of Striker) that guided weapons truly came of age (and even then it was mostly Laser Guided Bombs or anti-radiation missiles, not even GPS like today).
I am of the opinion that if one is going to portray combat in the far future, what is depicted is going to be very different than what we have today. I am reminded of the writing of Thomas Keaney and Eliot Cohen in Revolution in Warfare? Air Power in the Persian Gulf (originally the Gulf War Air Power Survey Summary Report for the DoD in 1993 but republished by Naval Institute Press in 1995). In Chapter 9, the authors take on the question, “Was Desert Storm a Revolution in Warfare?” They offer these thoughts:
A useful definition of a revolution in warfare might be a quantum change in the means of waging war and its outcome, such as the very face of battle– its lethality, pace, and geographical scope– is transformed. In most cases, a revolution in warfare involves the rise of new warrior elites, new forms of organization, and new dominant weapons.
Revolution in Warfare? p. 200
Keaney and Cohen go on to tell us, “Technology alone does not a revolution make; how military organizations adapt and shape new technology, military systems, and operational concepts matter much more” (Revolution in Warfare? p. 201). None of the Traveller RPG combat systems I reviewed, tactical or strategic, come close to depicting a “quantum change” in warfare. There is no new “warrior elite” in character generation nor “new organizations” in the sourcebooks or “dominant weapons” – even with all the handwavium of Plasma or Fusion or Meson guns. None of these Traveller RPG-related wargames even depict War in the Information Age, or whatever may be beyond that.
Please don’t take this critcism of GDW Traveller-related wargames as a negative; the designers of Traveller wargames, with Frank Chadwick in particular, delivered some fine wargames in their time (and still do today). Portraying combat in the far future is hard and, at least for me, often disappointing. I can’t even start to explain my hatred of combat in Star Wars (awesome cinematography but definitely not futuristic). Other science-fiction wargame rules like Dirtside II (Ground Zero Games -GZG- 1993) or Stargrunt II (GZG, 1996) or Hammer’s Slammers (Pireme, 2004) or Tomorrow’s War (Ambush Alley/Osprey Games, 2010) are maybe best described as late 20th century warfare with sci-fi weapons.
I have a soft spot in my heart for science-fiction tabletop roleplaying games. My first RPG ever was the Little Black Books of (Classic) Traveller back in 1979. More recently, Green Ronin Publishing kickstarted The Expanse Roleplaying Game: Sci-Fi Roleplaying at Humanity’s Edge in 2018 that delivered in 2019. At that time I passed on it but recently I acquired a physical copy of the hardback edition.
During the Kickstarter campaign for The Expanse RPG I looked at, and was turned off by, the artwork. I also was not sure of the core mechanic (Green Ronin’s Adventure Game Engine – AGE). Now that I have the product in hand, what do I think?
When I look at The Expanse, I see a space opera-like story with some hard-ish science-fiction behind it. My expectation from an RPG using The Expanse as a setting is that is should enable the players and GM to create drama but not in a manner that is too disconnected with reality. Where handwavium is used, it must be plausible given the conditions of the setting.
My first introduction to The Expanse was via the TV series. During Season 1 I picked up the books and started catching up by “reading ahead.” Although I like the TV series, I am a book reader at heart and will always take the book version of a setting over a TV interpretation any day. Therefore, I was very excited to see that the authors of The Expanse were part of the making of this RPG. Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (together known as James S.A. Corey) are credited with “Development and Story Consultation.” They also contributed the short story that opens the RPG book. In terms of spoilers, the default setting for The Expanse Roleplaying Game is the period between the first and second novels of the series.
[Interestingly, in all the references to The Expanse Fiction in the RPG there is no mention of the TV series. Looks like a separate licensing agreement? This doesn’t bother me as I am personally a fan of the earlier books in the series but I can see how some rabid fans of the TV series may be upset.]
The Expanse Roleplaying Game book is a hefty 256-page hardcover in full color. There is lots of material here and the format is very busy. I’m glad I got this as a deadtree product because looking at the pages and thumbing through an ebook would be very challenging for me unless it is very well bookmarked.
I previously complained about the artwork in The Expanse Roleplaying Game. My opinion has not changed but I better understand my reaction now. It’s the people. I just cannot connect with the characters shown in the book. Maybe I’m letting the TV series actors influence my expectations too much but even when I recognize that bias and try to look at the character art with that consideration in mind they just don’t work. At the end of the day the character images used in the book are so different are just not The Expanse-like to me.
Setting the Scene
I’ll just go ahead and stipulate that, given the intimate involvement of the series authors in this project, The Expanse Roleplaying Game has all the juicy world-building details a GM needs (and the players want?) to create a story set in The Expanse universe – of the books. A reminder that the default setting is the time between the first and second books (Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War).
The MEchanics behind the story
Given that The Expanse Roleplaying Game has all the needed settings material, my real test of the game is how well the core mechanics and supporting rules create a play experience that I feel fits the setting.
Coming of AGE
The core mechanic in The Expanse Roleplaying Game is Green Ronin Publishing’s Modern Adventure Game Engine (AGE). AGE is built around a basic Ability Test resolved by a 3d6 die roll:
TEST RESULT = 3D6 + ABILITY SCORE + 2 FOR ABILITY FOCUS (IF ANY) vs. [(Target Number (TN)) or (Opposed Test)]
The number to beat in the Ability Test is usually set by a difficulty ladder. The TN of an Average test is 11. This quite literally means that a test with the usual “hero” character +1 Ability level will PASS the test 50% of the time. When rolling your 3d6, one die must be different from the others. This is the Drama Die which helps measure degrees of success and can activate Stunt Points (SP) – but only on successes.
When making an Ability Test in The Expanse Roleplaying Game, if the test roll includes doubles the player gains Stunt Points (SP) equal to the Drama Die. Each different encounter type (Action/Exploration/Social) in The Expanse Roleplaying Game has its own suggested set of Stunts which is the “flair” of your actions. There are many different classes of Stunts for each encounter type and more than a few stunts for each class. There are so many here that the GM will be challenged to keep track of it all; for the player’s it may be all-but-impossible. The extensive listings also seemingly encourage a “menu selection” approach to play. I would much rather see some guidance to the GM and players and general costs (or ideas) and let character roleplaying define a stunt instead of giving a pick ‘n choose menu that in my mind diminishes narrative agency.
The other major character resource in The Expanse Roleplaying Game is Fortune. Luck is expressed in the game by that Fortune score; the more Fortune the more luck the PC has to change or influence the outcome of events. Fortune can be used to change the results of a die roll or even avoid damage. Fortune regenerates (slowly) between encounters and needs an Interlude (longer downtime between game sessions) to reset completely. Indeed, Fortune is probably the most powerful narrative-altering device in the player’s kit bag.
Buried way back in Chapter 12: Game Mastering of The Expanse Roleplaying Game is an optional rule called The Churn. It’s really sad that this concept is buried deep in the book and then presented as an optional rule because The Churn goes a long way towards making an adventure in The Expanse Roleplaying Game more thematic. The Churn is a track the GM keeps to show when the fickle hand of fate intervenes. At the beginning of an adventure The Churn pool is ‘0’. As events happen The Churn builds until it boils over into a game effect. Some might say The Churn robs the GM of plot control but I see it as a guide (and challenge) to the GM to move story along, sometimes in an epic change of direction.
Interestingly, although The Churn is described as an optional rule, the associated tables are prominently placed on the GM Screen. It’s as if Green Ronin is telling us we should be using The Churn although the rules seemingly tell us not.
In terms of “crunch,” I would call AGE “medium-heavy” for me. It is far cruchier than my beloved Cepheus Engine and relatively comparable to the Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars Roleplaying Game (GENESYS) or Cortex Prime (especially as used in Firefly Roleplaying Game) although with less narrative control by the player than either of those two systems.
Who Are You?
Character generation in The Expanse Roleplaying Game is done using a ten-step outline. This is a concept-driven design process; you decide at the beginning what you want and then tailor your character to get the desired result. At first I was worried that this process was going to be too player-directed and subject to min/maxing of characters. In reality, I discovered the system strikes a good balance between player desire and random chance.
The AGE system defines characters through nine abilities. The score for each ability ranges from -2 (quite poor) to 4 (truly outstanding). The book goes out of its way to say that a score of 1 is “average” for characters but everyday individuals are 0. As a long-time Traveller RPG player where characters are often “ordinary sophonts thrown into extraordinary situations” I’m not sure how I really feel about “special” characters.
For my first character in The Expanse Roleplaying Game I decided I wanted to generate a captain of a small subsidized freighter that moves about the Belt. Here I step through the 10-step process:
Goals and Ties (Player driven) – Short Term > Move to better ship, Long Term > own ship. Ties – ??
Name & Description (Player choice) – Chester “Chessy” Smith
Generally speaking, I am pleased with the result. I certainly generated my Subsidized Merchant Captain, but the process also created more than a few hooks that I as a player (or the GM) can build on. What makes a middle-class academic turn outsider?
One aspect of character generation in The Expanse Roleplaying Game I find very interesting is Step 7: Income and Equipment. Characters do not track money in credits, but instead use an Income Score that shows a relative financial condition. When combined with the rules for income and lifestyle it is possible to put the “cost of living” into the game and make it a contributing narrative element of the story.
Although the character generation process in The Expanse Roleplaying Game is not super complicated, I would have liked to see a beginning-to-end example. I also am very interested in how the iconic characters were created because as an AGE system neophyte I easily see how the stats presented came to be. It would be very insightful for the authors/designers to show their work here.
What is The Expanse without Rochinante? Ships are just as important as any character in The Expanse, and The Expanse Roleplaying Game gives spaceships its own chapter. The chapter starts out with a science lesson on space travel in The Expanse.
Note I said science lesson, not rules.
I know, even Classic Traveller used a few formulas, but in The Expanse Roleplaying Game at this point we learn all about motion and velocity and the handwavium science of the Epstein Drive. There is also a discussion of Hohmann Transfer orbits and Brachistochrone Trajectories and….
When I said I was looking for a “hard-ish sci-fi” setting I did NOT mean to give me a course in astrophysics. It is not until we get six (dense) pages into the chapter that we get information useful for PLAY. Table 2: “Average Communication Time Between Locations (In Minutes)” and Tables 3A-3D: “Average Travel Time Between Locations (At XXG) (In Hours)” is finally something that has real relevance (and use) to the players and GM.
The next section of the chapter describes space ships. The Expanse Roleplaying Game uses the tried and true “ships as characters” approach to ship descriptions. There are no ship construction rules in the book; that’s coming in a future expansion. What surprised me the most is there is no Rochinante described here. I’m guessing the Frigate on page 126 could stand in for the Roci, but given the Roci is part of the book could Green Ronin not have included some sort of Roci ship referenced as such? Sigh….
The adventure included in The Expanse Roleplaying Game is a good example for the GM in the how Parts, Scenes, Encounters and Interludes all come together to make a story. Too bad it’s nothing more creative than a dungeon crawl in space.
My Story vs. Canon
One worry I always have about licensed IP games is the inevitable canon wars. I’m very happy to see The Expanse Roleplaying Game address this head-on in Chapter 15. This chapter provides many different ideas for running a multitude of different types of stories. It even encourages the GM and players to go “beyond canon” where they see fit. Not that I was not going to make any game my own; it’s just good to see the authors encouraging creativity beyond the bounds of the published IP.
The Expanse Roleplaying Game is clearly aimed at Detailed Role Players – those who want to deeply explore the motivations of their characters. The rules are far too heavy for Social Role Players to pick up (or even play with no familiarity). There is little-to-no rules that support a Systems Engineer Role Player – the world building here is basically done for you.
The problem I have with the rules in The Expanse Roleplaying Game is that, after playing around a bit and running some shadow adventures, the core mechanic just doesn’t seem dramatic enough. The Ability Tests seem too formulamatic (and far from dramatic). The menu of Stunts encourage PBM (Play-By-Menu) and actually reduces the narrative drama of play. Being able to call upon Stunts only when successful also seems to take away the “narrative of loss” by which I mean being able to narrate failure is just as dramatically powerful as narrating success. This is why I believe the narrative dice in Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars Roleplaying(aka GENESYS) are so awesome; rolling Despair is just as narratively powerful as rolling a Triumph. I also feel the Fortune pool is just too big. In other systems the economy of Fate Points or Plot Points or Lightside/Darkside Points is tight and their use has a palatable value. Calling upon them is a major dramatic moment. In The Expanse Roleplaying Game when even Thugs have over a dozen Fortune points it just feels so non-dramatic. Is this simply a symptom of low level characters or is the core mechanic truly that sad?
At the end of the day, I am going to give The Expanse Roleplaying Game a hesitant, if not very reluctant, thumbs up. I think the game does a good job of creating a setting and rules that players who love The Expanse can play around in and feel “at home.” I’m a bit hesitant to go all-in because the rules seem a bit too heavy in places and more complex than they maybe need be. I also worry about the balance between narrative and “menu-driven” play the rules are built upon. Maybe as I play around with the rules more they will ferment a bit and become better with age.
Along this voyage of (re)discovery I came to the realization that there is no one single “Traveller Combat System.” Between 1977 and 1981 Game Designers’ Workshop (GDW) gave us EIGHT (8) different ground combat systems “For Use with TRAVELLER.” Broadly speaking, I see the eight systems divided into two broad categories; Strategic and Personal/Tactical. The eight systems, many found within their own games, are:
Imperium, Classic Traveller Game 0, 1977 (Strategic)
Traveller Combat System, found in Classic Traveller Book 1: Characters and Combat, 1977 (Personal)
Mercenary, found in Classic Traveller Book 4: Mercenary, 1978 (Tactical?)
Snapshot, Classic Traveller Game 2, 1979 (Personal)
Azhanti High Lightning, Classic Traveller Game 3, 1980 (Personal)
Fifth Frontier War, Classic Traveller Game 4, 1981 (Strategic)
Invasion Earth, Classic Traveller Game 6, 1981 (Strategic)
Striker, Classic Traveller Game 7, 1981 (Tactical)
[Of note, Dark Nebula, Classic Traveller Game 5 (1980) is basically a reskinned Imperium and I don’t treat it as a separate game system.]
In this post I’m going to look at the Strategic combat systems for the Traveller roleplaying game. Let us begin by going back to the beginnings of the RPG hobby in the mid-1970’s and a little corner of Indiana with a group calling themselves Game Designers’ Workshop (and pay attention to where the apostrophe is placed).
Strategic Traveller Wargames
Imperium – Empires in Conflict: Worlds in Balance (1977)
Imperium is known as Classic Traveller Game 0. The number reflects the fact the design predates release of the Traveller RPG system. As author Shannon Applecline tells us in Designers and Dragons: The ’70s –
Meanwhile, GDW was still playing with science-fiction designs. In 1975 and 1976 they worked on the prototype of a wargame called Imperium (1977). They finally published it in 1977 in a very different form, but in its original incarnation Imperium imagined a war between humans and many alien races, among them the lion-like Aslan, the bee-like Hivers, the dog-like Vargr and the mercenary Dorsai. Imperium also provided rules for individual characters — the sons of the leaders of the war — who progressed through individual careers and provided bonuses to armies based on the careers selected.
Both the alien races and the careers would be incorporated into GDW’s second and most notable RPG: Traveller.
Shannon Applecline, Designers and Dragons: The 70’s, Evil Hat Productions, 2014, p. 158
Here is how Imperium introduces itself:
lmperium is a science-fiction game about interstellar war. Several hundred years from now, Terra reaches the stars, only to find that they are already owned by a vast, sprawling interstellar empire: the Ziru Sirka (the Grand Empire of Stars or Imperium). The heavy hand of the lmperium and the expansionism of Earth lead naturally and inexorably to interstellar war. lmperium is a boardgame of that conflict.
Imperium Rule Book, p. 2
Imperium is what I term a grand strategic wargame. The scale of the game is six-month turns and 1/2 parsec (1.67 light years) per hex. If you are a Traveller RPG aficionado, you probably recognize the map scale is different and not the usual 1-parsec per hex. In keeping with the grand strategy design, Imperium includes rules for economics and both space and planetary warfare. The game actually has three distinct combat subsystems; “Space Combat,” “Planetary Surface/Space Interactions,” and “Surface Combat.” In this post I am focusing on the ground warfare aspects of the design found in the rules for “Surface Combat” in the core Rule Book starting on page 8.
If one makes it past the Space Combat and Planetary Surface/Space Interactions phases of an Imperium game turn (representing the deep and close-space battles) then a Surface Combat action may be fought. The combat mechanic here is the very traditional “battleline” where opponents are paired up. There is a very Avalon Hill War at Sea-like vibe to this combat mechanic and given WaS was published in 1975 is it possible the GDW designers took some inspiration?
In Imperium, Surface Combat begins with both players taking their forces and “pairing them off” against each other. If the attacker is unable to pair-off against all the defenders, no planetary assault is possible. If all combatants have been paired, any excess combatants can be doubled or even tripled up against. Optionally, forces not engaged can be “screened” and will not participate in the battle.
[As I reread the Surface Combat rules closely, I realized I had missed an important element over the many years played. I always assumed that only Troops, Planetary Defense Markers, and Outposts participated in Surface Combat. However, ships also participate!]
Paired off Imperium combatants now fight a round of combat by first determining their combat differential and then rolling on the appropriate column of the Surface Combat Results table. Regular troops attacking jump troops are given a round of defensive fire before the jump troops fire back to simulate the lack of heavy firepower jump troops possess (i.e. jump troops are great on offense but poor on defense). Possible combat results are either “No Effect” or “Destroyed/Neutralized.” Surface combat continues in rounds until all committed troops of one side are eliminated.
Surface Combat in Imperium, indeed any combat in Imperium, does not factor in a tech level difference. In the history of the game, the combatants were actually balanced technologically (although they designed ships using different doctrines) until the advent of the Terran battleship which appears in an Optional Rule.
Fifth Frontier War: Battles for the Spinward Marches (1981)
The cover of the rule book for Fifth Frontier War (FFW) carries the tagline “For Use With TRAVELLER” above the title. Here is how the game introduces itself:
Poised just beyond the frontier of the Imperium stand the war fleets of the Zhodani Consulate. Four times in the past five hundred years, they have attacked in campaigns to wrest control of the vital resources and rich worlds of the Spinward Marches from the Third Imperium. Now they strike again, and the Fifth Frontier War begins in earnest.
Fifth Frontier War is a Traveller campaign game portraying the progress of a far-reaching interstellar war and its effects on the many worlds that are its battlefield. The game is playable independently as a tense, fast-moving simulation of interstellar war. Rules cover starship squadrons and space battles, troop units and worlds at war, and the details of long-range interstellar planning. Special rules cover the operation of ship fleets, the use of naval bases, troop carriers, and advanced technological levels. Special charts cover every aspect of combat during the game.
Fifth Frontier War includes a large, four-color map of part of the Spinward Marches, complete with planetary surface boxes detailing the many planets within the area. Three sheets totaling 720 die-cut counters provide starship squadrons, troop units, fleet markers, admirals, and other details essential to the game. The rules booklet details how to play the game, while charts provide reference information. Two dice are included to help generate random numbers for combat.
Fifth Frontier War is playable by itself, but familiarity with the Traveller science-fiction role-playing system will aid in understanding the background history. The game may be played in 4 to 6 hours, and can usually be finished in an evening of play. It is designed for two players, but up to four may be involved if desired.
Fifth Frontier War, Rule Book, p. 2
The line, “…familiarity with the Traveller science-fiction role-playing system will aid in understanding the background history” is very insightful. FFW is set in the Traveller universe, but it is not an essential part of the roleplaying game. Like Imperium before it, FFW is another grand strategic wargame. This time, however, the setting is more closely tied to the Traveller material.
Leveraging the closer ties to Traveller, the scale in FFW uses several for the roleplaying game’s conventions. Each turn in one week, the same as the time spent in jump space, and each hex is one parsec.
FFW, like Imperium before it, uses several different combat subsystems in play. “Surface Combat” comes after “Space Combat” and “Interface Combat” in the Combat Phase of each turn. “Surface Combat” specifically deals with troops present on a world engaging in combat.
Resolution of surface combat in FFW is again very simple. The combat factor of a unit can be split to attack multiple defenders or they may combine with other units. The total of attacking combat factors is compared to defending combat factors to derive attack odds. Using the Troop Combat Results Table both the attacker rolls 2d6 and cross-references the results. Combat results are applied after all battles are complete. The combat result is expressed as the percentage of the force destroyed with the results applied at the end of the phase.
Technology makes a difference in surface combat in FFW. The combat factor of armored units is doubled in surface combat. Elite units also have their combat factor doubled. (Mercenary units have their strength halved if currently at 50% or more casualties; their heart isn’t in it anymore.) Most importantly, after the combat odds are determined, but before any dice are rolled, the relative tech levels of the force are considered. The difference in tech level becomes a column shift on the Troop Combat Results Table. Of note, the atmosphere of the planet is also a consideration, but appears in the form of a die roll modifier, not a column shift like technology. Just as importantly, the tech level of the force is determined by the lowest tech level unit participating in the combat.
Let’s see how surface combat plays out using the example in the rule book from FFW. It’s a bit long and the numbers may look big but in reality it goes quick once you try it. Pay close attention to how dramatic the column shifts can be from different tech levels fighting each other:
The Zhodani player has landed two tech level 14, full strength 20-factor troop units on a tech level 10 Imperial world having a tech level 15, full strength 5-factor troop unit and a 150-factor defense unit at 20% losses (thus having a current strength of 120). The Zhodani player attacks the Imperial troop unit using 15 factors; the combat odds are 3:1 (15:5) and are shifted one column to the left (to 2:1 ) due to tech level difference (14 -15 = -1 ). The dice roll is 5 and is not modified, as the atmosphere of the world is normal. Thus, 40% losses are inflicted on the Imperial troop unit. The Zhodani player attacks the defense unit using his remaining 25 factors. The combat odds are 1:5 (25:120) and are shifted four columns to the right (to 1.5:1) due to tech level difference (14 – 10 = 4). A 6 is rolled, and the unit takes 20% losses, increasing its total losses to 40%. Losses to the Imperial units are not implemented until the end of the combat. The Imperial player attacks one of the Zhodani units with all 5 of his tech level 15 factors. The combat odds are 1:5 (5:20). He could have used some of the factors from the defense unit to raise the odds, but this would have meant an unfavorable tech level difference due to the defense unit’s lower tech level. The tech level difference is (15 -14 =) 1, which means the attack is resolved on the 1:3 column. The dice roll is 9, and thus the attack has no effect. The Imperial player attacks the other Zhodani unit with the 120 factors of the defense unit. The odds are 5:1 (120:20) and are shifted four columns to the left (to 1:1) due to tech level difference (10 -14 = -4). The dice roll is 7, resulting in 10% losses to the Zhodani unit. Surface combat resolution is now finished for this world, and the combat results are implemented: a 10 casualty marker is stacked under one of the Zhodani units, a 40 casualty marker is stacked under the Imperial troop unit, and the 20 casualty marker for the defense battalions is exchanged for a 40 casualty marker.
Fifth Frontier War, Rule Book, p. 15
Near the end of the rules for FFW the designers give some hints for using this wargame in a Traveller RPG campaign:
Role-playing appears to Traveller players to be a simple series of adventures in which situations are presented, dealt with by the players, and resolved. The Traveller referee knows that there is a lot more to running a consistent, interesting Traveller campaign; preparation for each situation is required, contingencies must be foreseen, and background laid out. Fifth Frontier War is intended as a partial solution to the problems of presenting situations to Traveller players.
Fifth Frontier War is a detailed adventure game of the progress of the current war between the Imperium and the Zhodani in the Spinward Marches. It progresses on weekly turns with forces representing squadrons of military starships and battalions or more of fighting troops. The game is intended to be played for enjoyment of and by itself. Indeed, in situations where no referee is available, or where only two Traveller players can get together, Fifth Frontier War allows them to play a form of Traveller without a referee.
Ultimately, the Traveller referee will have enough experience with the game and its rules to be able to use it in a Traveller campaign. At that point, Fifth Frontier War can be used to indicate the greater conditions that are happening in the Spinward Marches, often just beyond the knowledge of Traveller adventurers. Players can be idly exploring a world in the Spinward Marches and be suddenly confronted with a major space battle in the skies above them, or encounter major friendly or enemy troop units establishing bases. The point is that they cannot know ahead of time exactly what activity is taking place even one system away, and that activity could be deadly to them.
Fifth Frontier War, Rule Book, p. 19
Invasion: Earth – The Final Battle of the Solomani Rim War (1981)
Invasion: Earth (IE) was released in the same year as FFW but does not carry the “For Use With TRAVELLER” tag across the cover. Maybe this is because Invasion: Earth is a historical game in the Traveller setting, taking place some five years before the default start of the Traveller setting from the Little Black Books.
Once again, I’m going to let the introduction of Invasion: Earth explain itself:
Invasion: Earth is a two-player game of the assault on Terra by the forces of the Imperium; this battle was the last major campaign of the Solomani Rim War. (A section at the end of the rules gives a brief outline of this war.) One player represents the commander of the lmperial invasion force and controls all lmperial regular, colonial, and mercenary units in the game. The other player represents the commander of the Solomani forces assigned to the defense of Terra and controls all Solomani units in the game.
Invasion: Earth is a complete game, playable in itself. It may also be used in several ways to supplement or to provide a background for Traveller campaigns and adventures, as indicated in a section following the rules on the play of the game.
Invasion: Earth, Rule Book, p. 3
Invasion: Earth is a game that shows the strategic-level of warfare, but at a much smaller scale than either Imperium or FFW. One game of Invasion: Earth is a single planetary invasion; one complete round of surface combat at one planet in Imperium or Fifth Frontier War. Each turn in Invasion: Earth is two weeks. Here is how the rules describe surface units:
Troop units are the field formations which, through the use of manpower and firepower, are the ultimate defenders or attackers of a piece of terrain. Due to the high technological levels of the opposing forces, the basic transport vehicle is the anti-gravity vehicle; hence troop units are quite mobile. PD [Planetary Defense] units are collections of energy weapons and missiles capable of engaging naval units bombarding the surface of a world. Each has an intrinsic garrison assigned to it; hence, a PD unit is rated and treated similarly as a troop unit. Most PD units are large, static installations and are immobile, while a few small PD units are mounted on grav vehicles.
Invasion: Earth, Rule Book, p. 3
The combat system used in Invasion: Earth is near-identical to FFW. Adjustments for Armor, Elite, and Mercenary units are still here. Tech level differences shift columns on the Troop Combat Table. The major difference between Invasion: Earth and FFW is the introduction of movement rules.
Like FFW before, the rule book for Invasion: Earth includes extensive ideas for integrating the game with a Traveller RPG campaign. Additionally, though Invasion: Earth focuses on one (“historical”) planetary invasion, the end of the rule book also includes a section for taking the rules and using them for other campaigns, including troops not equipped with grav vehicles (the default in IE).
A review of the first 24 issues of the Journal of the Traveller’s Aid Society reveals only a small handful of articles related to rules for these strategic wargames. Not surprising, in a way, given JTAS was intended to support the Traveller RPG game and not the wargame line of GDW.
JTAS 1 (1979)
This issue contained the article “Diplomacy in Imperium” which introduced a variant using Emissaries into the campaign. Meh.
JTAS 5 (1980)
This cover article in this issue is “Imperium: Ground Combat Module” by the same Roberto Camino that did the “Diplomacy” variant in Issue 1. The ground system he introduces is something between Imperium and Invasion: Earth with planets depicted on two hemispherical maps. This module is intended to replace the Surface Combat phase of Imperium.
JTAS 9 (1981)
This was a “special” Fifth Frontier War edition with lots of background material for the game (some of which was duplicative of the rule book).
What’s the Best Strategy?
As similar as two of these game are, all three of these strategic Traveller wargames offer very different approaches to the Traveller RPG universe. That said, all three of these games are clearly wargames-first and the integration with the Traveller RPG is difficult at best. This is very much unlike almost every Personal/Tactical combat game that is tightly tied to (even forming) the roleplaying game rules.
Imperium is by far the most abstract of the strategic models and unsurprisingly the easiest to learn and play. It also has no expressed technological aspect. Coming before the publication of Traveller, it is also probably the most difficult to “fit” into a Traveller RPG campaign setting as it uses many elements of the setting but in ways that are not directly relatable to the RPG.
Fifth Frontier War, regardless of the “For Use With TRAVELLER” tagline, is a separate wargame set in the Traveller RPG universe. FFW probably does the second-best job of capturing the technological difference of any Traveller wargame, either Personal/Tactical or Strategic. Although there are extensive notes describing how to use FFW in a Traveller RPG campaign, the truth to the matter is the two systems, though set in the same universe and sharing common foundations, are too different in scale to be combined.
Invasion: Earth is the best wargame/RPG system, either Personal/Tactical or Strategic, to capture the impact of technology on ground warfare in the Traveller universe. Like FFW, however, integrating Invasion: Earth into a Traveller RPG campaign is very challenging due once again to the differences in scale. Invasion: Earth is closer to an RPG than FFW, but fighting two weeks of battles between Regiments or Armies is far above the “personal view” that the Traveller RPG is built on.
Interestingly, even though there are more than few articles that discuss integrating the tactical-scale Striker (GDW, 1981) into Traveller campaign, I find no articles or rules about integrating Striker into Imperium, FFW, or Invasion: Earth. I realize Striker was published near-simultaneous to FFW and Invasion: Earth, but you would think even after the fact somebody might had made an attempt in JTAS. Guess not. Once again, the difference in scale is probably just too much to overcome.
*Interestingly, the Traveller Combat System was never called TCS. Within the Traveller rules system, TCS is the abbreviation for “Trillion Credit Squadron.”
I am really looking forward to getting the last few games mailed in 2020 to the gaming table. That is, once they arrive. Kudos to the US Postal Service for the 18th century service! I mean, my C3i Magazine Nr 34 with designer Trevor Bender’s Battle for Kursk is ‘only’ on day nine of the 2-8 days expected delivery with a present status of “In Transit” but unlocated. Then there is my Buffalo Wings 2 – The Deluxe Reprint (Against the Odds, 2020). The good folks at ATO, recognizing the mailing mess, sent all the packages by 2-day Priority Mail but the USPS was so helpful they let it sit for the first THREE days at the initial mailing point with a status of “Shipment Received, Package Acceptance Pending.” I know; First World Gamer problems and all those that ship international ain’t impressed!
Without new games I went to the shelves and pulled out an old game that I recently acquired but had not played. Harpoon Captain’s Edition bills itself as, “fast, simple, and fun to play.” Six hours and 16 (!) scenarios later…well, you’ll have to wait a few weeks and see what I thought.
By the way, playing Harpoon Captain’s Edition 16 times now “officially” makes this game the most-played wargame in my collection since I started (sorta) keeping records in 2017.HCE is just ahead of Enemies of Rome (Worthington Publishing, 14 plays), Hold the Line: The American Civil War (Worthington Publishing, 12 plays), Root (Leder Games, 11 plays), Table Battles (Hollandspiele, 11 plays), and Tri-Pack: Battles of the American Revolution (GMT Games, 10 plays).
In a recent post I discussed my search for a #TravellerRPG wargame for use in ground combat. In the course of that posting, I talked about several different wargames and what I liked, or didn’t like, about them. Since I started down that rabbit hole, I decided to dig a bit further by taking a deeper look back at the original personal and vehicle combat systems for roleplaying games from the Classic Traveller-era (1977-1981). Along the way I discovered:
I didn’t remember as many things about early Traveller as I thought I did
There is more variety to the systems than I remember
Technology plays a much lesser mechanical role then I remember.
The Traveller Combat System
When I started my review, I immediately discovered there is not one single “Traveller Combat System” though, as you will see, there is a something called the Traveller Combat System. Indeed, between 1977 and 1981, Game Designers’ Workshop (GDW) gave us EIGHT (8) different ground combat systems. Broadly speaking, I see the eight systems divided into two broad categories; Strategic and Personal/Tactical. The eight systems, many found within their own game, are:
Imperium, Classic Traveller Game 0, 1977 (Strategic)
Traveller Combat System, found in Classic Traveller Book 1: Characters and Combat, 1977 (Personal)
Mercenary, or the Abstract System found in Classic Traveller Book 4: Mercenary, 1978 (Tactical?)
Snapshot, Classic Traveller Game 2, 1979 (Personal)
Azhanti High Lightning, Classic Traveller Game 3, 1980 (Personal)
Fifth Frontier War, Classic Traveller Game 4, 1981 (Strategic)
Invasion Earth, Classic Traveller Game 6, 1981 (Strategic)
Striker, Classic Traveller Game 7, 1981 (Tactical)
[Of note, Dark Nebula, Classic Traveller Game 5 (1980) is basically a reskinned Imperium and I don’t treat it as a separate game system.]
In this post I’m going to look at the five Personal/Tactical combat systems for the Traveller roleplaying game. A later post will look at the strategic systems. For now, let’s go back to the beginnings of the RPG hobby, and a little corner of Indiana with a group calling themselves Game Designers’ Workshop (and pay attention to where the apostrophe is placed).
Personal / Tactical Systems
The Little Black Books (1977)
The original rules for the Traveller roleplaying game were laid out in the three Little Black Books first published by GDW in 1977. Book 1: Characters and Combat detailed the first iteration of what came to be known as the “Traveller Combat System.”*
The Traveller Combat System is a combat resolution model for personal combat or what many wargamers often refer to as “skirmish” scale. The system was designed to resolve combat actions between individuals or small groups (like a party of travellers). Each round of combat represented 15 seconds.
I term the Traveller Combat System “semi-abstracted.” The combat procedure in the Traveller Combat System is very simple and straightforward but lacks many usual wargame-like details. In every battle the players and referee step through a simple four-step process:
Determine initial range
Resolve combat wherein each character declares both a movement status and an attack.
The roll for surprise is subject to several modifiers. I was a bit surprised to see that three of the seven possible modifiers relate to military associated skills – which makes sense given the character generation rules that emphasize military experience. A further three modifiers relate to whether a vehicle is used and the size of the party. The last modifier is for Pouncer animals; very useful in wilderness encounters!
Terrain is a possible modifier for determining range. Encounter distances are broken down into five bands; Close (touching), Short (1-5m), Medium (pistol range, 6-50m), Long (rifle range, 51-250m), and Very Long (extreme range, 251-500m).
Rather than a square or hexagon-gridded map, the Traveller Combat System uses Range Bands. The rules recommend (and I clearly remember using) regular loose leaf lined paper. The number of lines away determines your range. Movement was by bands.
Combat in the Traveller Combat System is based on a simple “Roll 8+ on 2d6 to hit the target.” Die modifiers come in several flavors:
Melee Weapons require Strength with strong or weak characters gaining an advantageous or weakened blow modifier
Ranged Weapons require Dexterity, again with advantages for high Dexterity characters
Using the Weapons Matrix, cross reference the Attacker’s Weapon with the Defender’s Armor yields another DM
Using the Range Matrix, each different Attacker’s Weapon yields another DM; this is also where the damage (expressed in number of d6) is found.
Wounds in the Traveller Combat System are determined by different number of d6. The total of the first hit is applied to one personal characteristic and can be enough to render the character unconscious. After the first hit, the dice in subsequent attacks are spread out over the Strength-Dexterity-Endurance characteristics (i.e. if your attack scores 2d6 hits, the total of die #1 can be applied to one characteristic and the total of die #2 to another). When a single characteristic drops to zero the character is unconscious. When two are reduced the character is seriously wounded and if all three go to zero the character is killed. Bottom Line: The Traveller Combat System is DEADLY.
In keeping with the personal combat focus of the Traveller Combat System, the personal characteristics of strength, dexterity, and endurance are very important in combat. As already mentioned, strength and dexterity grant a bonus, or penalty, in combat. Endurance is essential in melee combat; every “blow” takes endurance. Once all your endurance is gone no more blows are possible until after a rest period.
Character skills also factor in the Traveller Combat System. Knowing how to use a weapon grants a bonus (with more skill granting a bigger bonus); untrained is a penalty. Expertise is also used to parry in brawling or blade combat.
One rule I did not remember in the Traveller Combat System is morale. Basically, when at least 20% of the party is unconscious or killed, you must start making morale throws. Failure means the party breaks and runs. I absolutely do not remember this rule; I think we ignored it because it took away player agency. Or maybe we just didn’t use it because the combat system is already deadly enough that we didn’t get into combat unless we were very sure of ourselves.
I also notice now that there is no vehicle combat rules in Book 1. A party can be in a vehicle at the start of combat, but there are no rules for fighting vehicle to vehicle.
In 1978, GDW published what nowadays we would call a splatbook for mercenary characters. Not only did Classic Traveller Book 4: Mercenary include expanded character generation rules, it also included new combat rules. Actually, it makes references to three different rules systems:
There are three means of resolving a mercenary mission: the standard Traveller adventure/combat system, the abstract system included later in this section, and a free-form system created by the referee. All three are discussed to a greater or lesser extent, but it should be born in mind that these are intended only as a general guide to the referee, not as a definitive miniatures rules set.
Book 4: Mercenary, “Battles”, p. 31
When introducing the Abstract System, the designers tell us, “The abstract mission resolution system is particularly valuable in resolving a mercenary mission involving large numbers of troops on one or both sides and in which player characters are not primary participants (serving as NCOs in an infantry battalion, for example).” It is telling that the Abstract System has no time or distance scale; it has all been abstracted out.
Combat resolution using the Abstract System in conducted in two broad parts: preparation and resolution. During preparation, the characteristics of the opposing forces is determined, to include the Mission, Tech Level, Size of the force, and Efficiency. This is accomplished through a series of die rolls. At this point the referee also needs to determine a preservation number for the force.
Once the two sides are prepared, the Abstract System moves to resolution. Once again, a series of die rolls determines the Element Engaged, the Encounter Type and then the actual Combat Resolution. Given the involvement of player characters, there is also a chance of Personal Casualties which is addressed at this point.
Although I call the Mercenary Abstract System a tactical-level battle system, the reality is a bit fuzzy. The size of the force and element engaged can range from a Fire Team nominally of four soldiers up to an entire Brigade of 1500 troops.
The Abstract System lives up to its name; it is highly abstracted to the point all the tables necessary for preparation and resolution are on one digest-sized page in Book 4. The combat results table is actually a Firing Matrix where the firing unit is cross-referenced with the Target Unit to get a die roll modifier (DM). At this point, the Tech Level difference of the two units is used as a +/- DM. Casualties are expressed in percentage of the force with personal casualties dependent upon how much of the force was put out of action. The battle continues in rounds until one side or the other reaches its preservation level and withdraws.
When it comes to vehicle combat, Mercenary is very silent on the issue. Like the Traveller Combat System, no vehicle combat rules are provided. The closest Book 4 comes is a discussion of military vehicles at different tech levels.
The next personal combat system in the Traveller universe is Snapshot: Close Combat Aboard Starships in the Far Future. The title alone should tell you the focus here; combat between individuals within the closed confines of starships. The rules even go so far as to state they are not intended for outdoor encounters or ranges greater than 50-60 meters.
In order to make Snapshot work, GDW uses the same 15 second rounds but instead of the range bands in the Traveller Combat System they introduce a square grid. Each grid square is 1.5m, conveniently the same scale used to draw starship deck plans. With the introduction of grid squares, many other wargame-like rules are introduced. There now are stacking limits and facing considerations.
Instead of the move/attack action in the Traveller Combat System, in Snapshot each character is allotted a number of Action Points (AP) equal to the sum of their Endurance and Dexterity (with a minimum of six). Every action has a different AP cost. This is where one of my favorite wargame rules, The Expletive, is found.
Combat resolution in Snapshot is virtually identical to the Traveller Combat System except the separate Weapons and Range Matrix tables is collapse into one table. Wounding is the same with hits being applied against personal characteristics.
Snapshot, being focused on close encounters aboard ships, has no vehicle combat rules.
Azhanti High Lightning (1980)
The next combat system GDW gives us for Traveller is Azhanti High Lightning (AHL). AHL is both a sourcebook on a class of ships and a new combat game. It is a further progression of the Traveller Combat System and Snapshot. Like Snapshot, each combat round in AHL is 15 seconds and each square is the same 1.5m.
The major evolution of the AHL system is that each turn now consists of multiple action phases instead of the single action phase in Snapshot. In the Decision Phase the player secretly determines what the “strategy” of the turn will be: cover fire, aim, or move. Like Snapshot, players have AP to spend, but unlike Snapshot where the AP is determined by the sum of characteristics in AHL each character has a flat 6 AP in each of the five action phases.
The second major evolution in AHL is the combat system. The Weapons Table divides range into Effective, Long, and Extreme ranges each with its own base to-hit number. In many ways this new Weapons Table “builds in” many previous die roll modifiers. However, once a hit is made the resolution system from that point forward totally changes from pervious versions.
In AHL, once a hit is made you check the damage table. This die roll is modified by the Penetration Value of the weapon and any cover or armor for the target. Instead of applying damage to characteristics, wounds are described as Light, Serious, or Death with unconsciousness also possible. A new Melee combat system is also introduced using Melee Ratings of combatants.
Rules for integrating AHL with Traveller are provided. The formula for a Melee Rating is given, as well as other special rules about Danger Space for weapons. Interestingly, no skills are used as modifiers in AHL; here skill is subsumed into a single weapons skill rating on a counter. Morale and leadership bonuses are generated using the Mercenary system.
Again, I was very surprised to discover that AHL has no vehicle combat rules.
To understand what Striker represents to Traveller players, I think it is worth quoting the introduction at length:
Striker is a set of rules for science fiction ground combat using 15mm miniature figures. each player will command a force ranging from a platoon to several companies, consisting of a few dozen to over a hundred men, plus artillery, armored vehicles, and aircraft. The rules are intended to be easy for the beginning player to understand wile at the same time providing a comprehensive and detailed treatment of ground combat from the beginning of this century to the far future.
On important aspect in which Striker differs from previous miniatures rules is the role assigned to the player. In most games, a player simultaneously plays the role of every member of a military unit; no orders need to be given, and every man performs as the player likes. In Striker, realistic limitations have been put on the abilities of officers to command their units. Giving orders to subordinates is a time-consuming process; commanders will find it advisable to devise a simple plan and to give most orders in pre-battle briefings. Changes to this plan in the heat of action will be difficult except through on the spot leadership. For a more detailed discussion of this point, read Firefight, at the beginning of section II of this book.
The science fiction background of Striker is drawn from the universe of Traveller. All weapons and military technology described in Traveller (including Book 4, Mercenary) are included in Striker. These rules may be used in conjunction with Traveller or by themselves; no familiarity with Traveller is required.
In Striker, as in Traveller, technology is rated by tech levels; these rules cover weapons and equipment ranging from tech level 5 (about World War I) to tech level 15 (the level of Traveller’s Imperium). Present-day earth is about tech level 7.
Striker, Book 1: Basic Rules, “Introduction,” p. 4
Striker changed scales yet again, with each turn now representing 30 seconds and one millimeter on the table equaling 1 meter. Units are described principally by their morale (Recruit-Regular-Veteran-Elite) and an initiative rating. The sequence of play moved closer to a classic wargame with a Command Phase followed by First Player Movement – First Player Fire then Second Player Movement – Second Player Fire with a Panic Morale Check Phase at the end. As befits the core focus, command, communications, and morale all factor prominently in what a unit can, or cannot, do.
Instead of Action Points, units in Striker are assigned orders. The number of orders and how long it takes to communicate them are the heart of the command and communications rules. A single order can consist of three components: movement, fire, and a rally point. For example, an order might be, “Move to the crest of Hill 17, through the forest, at fastest speed. Fire at enemy units detected. Rally Point: Little Star crossroads.”
Fire combat in Striker is an evolution of the AHL system. Hits cause casualties (Light-Serious-Destroyed) like in AHL, but in Striker the impact to morale is also considered. Morale checks are made when proximate to an enemy, when taking casualties, or if a unit routed nearby (to avoid panic). Four different results of a failed morale check are possible: Suppressed, Fall Back, Forced Back, and Routed. Surrender is also possible.
I was absolutely dumbfounded to realize that it was not until the publication of Striker in 1981 that vehicle combat officially came to the Traveller RPG universe. The system is interesting; when shooting at a vehicle the firing player declares either a “high” (vs turret) or “low” (vs hull) shot. The angle of attack is also considered. After that the fire procedure is basically the same as any other combat in Striker.
[I went back and looked to see where vehicle combat may have had a start pre-Striker. I found the Judges Guild product Lazer Tank (1980) that has a very simple vehicle combat system but is unlike anything anywhere else in Traveller. I also identified vehicle rules in the Amber Zone article “Pursue and Destroy” from Issue 7 of the Journal of the Traveller’s Aid Society. This article, published in 1981 from Frank Chadwick, apparently still predates his Striker rules as it refers to using Mercenary and Azhanti High Lightning to resolve combat. A methodology for converting AHL wound levels to vehicle damage is provided. The first published adventure to feature the chance of vehicle combat is Adventure 7: Broadsword that was published in 1982 and recommends using Book 1, Mercenary, and Striker.]
Striker also includes sections describing Planetary Defenses (Book 2: Equipment, Rule 76: Planetary Defenses) as well as Rule 77: Jump Troops. Rule 79 is Integration with Mercenary while Rule 80 is Integration with Traveller. Both focus on skills or the impact of morale and changes necessary to move between different wound systems.
However, it is the Vehicle Design Sequence that truly sets Striker apart from its predecessors. This “game within a game” aimed squarely at Traveller “systems engineers” is the foundation of every vehicle design system used since in the Traveller universe. Here is a methodology to create a vehicle that is described in common game terms and comparable across multiple tech levels. Truly an astonishing achievement.
Which One Should I Use?
When I look back on the history of personal/tactical ground combat systems for Traveller, I don’t look at it pessimistically and see too many choices. Instead I am ever the optimist and see many good choices that as a referee I can mix and match to my hearts content.
I love the Traveller Combat System. It is the most pure and simple, and probably the most supportive of good narrative play. The rules are super light and easy.
The Abstract System from Mercenary is good for “background” action. It can also be the primary system for resolving mercenary tickets if the players are running a mercenary company.
Snapshot and Azhanti High Lightning are good at what their focus is; shipboard combat. Comparing them, Snapshot is more RPG-like whereas AHL is more “wargame-y.” What I mean here is Snapshot, with action points determined by characteristics, is closer to the RPG but Azhanti High Lightning is the more refined rules set.
Since forever, I always assumed that Striker was the miniatures rules set for the Traveller roleplaying game. Reading the introduction, Traveller does not get mentioned until paragraph three. Instead, what we actually have in our possession is a set of miniatures rules for 15mm figures suitable for playing out small scale/unit actions with a set of rules that allow one to simultaneously employ multiple levels of technology. As important a role technology plays, the true focus of the game is actually on Command and the ability of leaders to communicate and coordinate on the battlefield. This makes Striker the most “wargame-y” of the group. As I already mentioned, the vehicle design system is a truly foundational part of the Traveller universe. However, the focus on command and not characters makes Striker’s use in a Traveller campaign a bit questionable.
I also note that the vehicle combat rules found in the modern Cepheus Engine version of the Original 2d6 Science Fiction Roleplaying Game did not appear in the early years of the GDW era. The Striker -based rules were still in use through at least 1994 when Striker II: Miniatures Warfare in the Far Future was published as part of Traveller: The New Era. The modern rules for vehicle combat use the same “actions” approach of personal combat in Cepheus Engine where each crew member gets one significant and two minor actions in a combat round (six seconds of time). I’m not absolutely sure, but this mechanic may have first appeared in the Mongoose Traveller 1st Edition published in 2008.
I also found it interesting to look at what happened to these games after publication. Looking through the first 24 issues of the Journal of the Traveller’s Aid Society (JTAS) brought some further enlightenment.
JTAS 2 (1979)
This issue contains a very interesting rebuttal to an article in the June 1979 issue of The Dragon. JTAS editor Loren K. Wiseman responds to criticism of Mercenary with the comment, “To criticize a set of rules or a game because it has omitted some vital aspect of its subject matter is one thing, but to downgrade rules because they do not cover something beyond their scope is a little like saying ‘Squad Leader is a fairly good game, but I would have liked to have more air-to-air combat in it.'”
JTAS 12 (1981)
This issue had two Striker-related articles; “Striker Errata” and “Strike it Rich” where author J. Andrew Keith talks about using Striker as a new combat system or as a valuable source book.
JTAS 14 (1982)
Articles include “Civilian Vehicles for Striker” and “Foxhound” by J.D Webster (later famous for his Fighting Wings series of air combat wargames). “Foxhound” is billed as a Striker variant but a close reading reveals this is really a system for fitting flying vehicles into the Traveller Combat System, especially since it uses the same range bands. That said, weapons fire uses Striker….
JTAS 16 (1983)
Contributor Michael Wharton serves up “Merging the Striker and Traveller Combat Systems.” He focuses on converting the Striker damage levels to the point system of Traveller and adjusting Striker “to hit” at short ranges. During the course of the article, he hits on the major difference between Striker and the Traveller Combat System:
By its own admission, Striker is designed to deal with fairly large scale actions fought at moderate-to-long ranges. At the short ranges of many Traveller firefights, however, confined as they often are within starships or barrooms, the Striker hit determination tables become somewhat unrealistic. That an 8+ is required to hit a target only two meters away seems unlikely. Also, the difficulty of using long arms at very short range is not addressed.
“Merging the Striker and Traveller Combat Systems,” JTAS 16, p. 43
JTAS 17 (1983)
Both feature articles in this issue are for ground-pounders (almost). “Air Strike: A Close Air Support Rules Module for Mercenary” by T. McInnes provides what I call a very loose set of rules for integrating air support into the Abstract System. The second article, “Hunting Bugs: Striker Meets Horde” by John Marshall explains how to use Striker when playing Double Adventure 5: The Chamax Plague/Horde. Hmm…
JTAS 21 (1984)
The feature article, “Striker Weapons Systems Analysis,” does not appear in the Table of Contents. Some useful design notes to consider here but nothing really in the way of combat rules mechanics.
JTAS 22 (1985)
Two feature articles are included. The first, “‘Til They Glow in the Dark: Nukes for Traveller/Striker Campaigns” seems out of place for the Traveller default setting when one considers the Imperial Rules of War that forbid the usage of nukes. I guess this article can support alternate Traveller universes. The second article, “Seastrike – Underwater Combat in Traveller” mixes Striker with the ship design system High Guard.
JTAS 23 (1985)
Whoops! Forgot to print the “Striker Expanded Nuclear Warheads List” in issue 22. Here it is!
*Interestingly, the Traveller Combat System was never called TCS. Within the Traveller rules system, TCS is the abbreviation for “Trillion Credit Squadron.”
Season 5 of The Expanse TV series is streaming now, which means its that time of the TV season that I look once again at how I can take the hard-ish science fiction of James S.A. Corey and depict it in a roleplaying game campaign. This time I am focused on one foundational aspect of the setting that I took for granted before – gravity.
Getting Down with Gravity in The Expanse
Gravity in The Expanse is kept fairly realistic. The sources of gravity are what we expect from our current understanding of physics. Gravity is created by mass (planets, moons, planetoids, asteroids), spin habitats, or along the thrust vector of ships. Gravity is also a vital part of the cultures in The Expanse. From Belters who are tall and lanky from growing up in low-g but weak in normal gravity to Martian Marines who train at 1-g to be ready to fight on Earth, gravity is an important descriptor (discriminator?) between different factions. Gravity also has important impacts to space travel and combat; look no further than the need for “the juice” to withstand high-g acceleration or maneuvers or how it acts to limit human activities if one’s body is subjected to high-g stress for long durations (not to mention the catastrophic consequences of decelerating too quickly, yuck).
I really appreciate how all these various rule sets can work together to create an internally consistent, plausible setting. Although I use all these different rules sets and settings for reference, I will describe my rules interpretations primarily in Cepheus Engine terms for ease of integration across the various rules incarnations. My goal here is not to “science the sh*t” out of gravity in my RPG campaign, but to lean on a reasonable set of rules to provide good setting “flavor.”
Characters and Gravity
Characters in Cepheus Engine are described using three physical characteristics; Strength, Dexterity, and Endurance. The usual character generation method is to roll 2d6 for each characteristic. Each characteristic can range from 1 to 15 with 7 being a human average. Interestingly, when creating the physical characteristics of a character, there is no adjustment in the rules based on a low-gravity homeworld. Instead, an (assumed) low gravity homeworld grants certain default skills. Specifically, a homeworld with a Trade Code of “Asteroid” or “Vacuum” earn the Zero-G-0 skill (CESRD, p. 26)
The CESRD also has rules for alien species that are not specifically intended for human characters but I note them here as they may prove useful:
Notable (Characteristic): Some species are notably dexterous, intelligent, tough or strong. Characters from such races have a positive Dice Modifier when rolling for that characteristic (+2 unless otherwise specified), and their racial maximum for that characteristic is increased by the same amount. (CESRD, p. 44)
Weak (Characteristic): The opposite of Notable (Characteristic), some species are weaker, less resilient or less well educated than others. Characters from such races have a negative Dice Modifier when rolling for that characteristic (-2 unless otherwise specified), and their racial maximum for that characteristic is decreased by the same amount. (CESRD, p. 45)
The Clement Sector setting supplement Tree of Life: Altrants in Clement Sectordefines an altrant as, “groups of humans which, from birth, have been altered thanks to advanced genetic manipulation, to have abilities different than a baseline human. These changes were most often made to allow humans to be able to perform tasks and live in environments which would be difficult or impossible for baseline humans.” If one ignores the “genetic manipulation” and instead views the change as “naturally evolved” then two Body Alterations found in this supplement may be useful:
Muscle Increase Package: Often referred to as the “Hercules” alteration, this procedure alters the body to make it as strong as it can possibly be. This alteration is the equivalent of years of strength training and will give the body the appearance of a successful bodybuilder. Taking this alteration gives the character +3 to their STR and -3 to their DEX immediately after the full alteration time period has passed. (Tree of Life, p. 45)
Vestibular System (Improved): This alteration improves the sensory system which provides the user with their sense of balance, spacial orientation, and balance. This gives the character a +2 DM to any physical task performed in gravity of less than 0.50 standard. However, the character will suffer a -2 DM to any physical task attempted in gravity of more than 1.25 standard (Tree of Life, p. 49)
The CESRD is also limited in what affect gravity has on characters. The skill “Zero-G” provides some guidance for actions in zero-gravity environments:
Zero G: The Character is acclimated to working and living in micro-gravity environments and freefall. The character is trained and familiar with the use of weapons and combat in such environments. In addition, the individual has been trained in the wearing, care, and maintenance of all types of Vacuum Suits and Combat Armor commonly used in these conditions.
CESRD, p. 57
[As an aside, looking back over the history of Traveller, the Zero-G skill, seemingly so foundational to a science fiction setting, has evolved in interesting ways. In Classic Traveller Little Black Book 1: Characters and Combat, one finds the skill Vacc Suit but not Zero-G. The CESRD has Zero-G but not Vacc Suit. T5 has both Vacc Suit (which it names as a Default Skill that all characters start with) AND Zero-G.]
Rules for “High and Low Gravity Worlds” are found in Chapter 12: Worlds of the CESRD:
High and Low Gravity Worlds: Worlds where the gravity is 0.75 or less are low-gravity worlds….Humans tend to find life on low-gravity worlds to be initially pleasant, but regular exercise regimes and medicinal supplements are required to prevent bone and muscle degradation. Those who spent too long on low-gravity worlds cannot tolerate higher gravities. Characters on low-gravity worlds suffer a -1 DM to all skill checks until they acclimatize, a process which takes 1D6 weeks. Characters with Zero-G skill at level 0 or better acclimatize instantly.
High-gravity worlds have a gravity 1.25 times or more than of Earth….Humans find high-gravity worlds unpleasant. Especially high-gravity worlds require the use of pressured or powered suits to support the human frame. Characters on high-gravity worlds suffer a -1 DM to all skill checks until they acclimatize, a process that takes 1D6 weeks.
CESRD, p. 168
Going back deep into the Classic Traveller lore, Module 2: Beltstrike includes rules for activities in zero and low gravity. Basically put, anytime the characters attempted to move or otherwise act in zero-g they had to make a saving throw of 10+ (on 2d6), applying modifiers as found on the Zero-G Activities Chart:
The more recent Orbital 2100 also provides rules for activities in zero-g environment. The task roll in Orbital 2100 is the spiritual successor of Beltstrike but greatly simplified:
Every crewman on DSV [Deep Space Vehicle] or orbital vehicle will have Zero-G skill-0 as standard. Higher levels of the skill are indicative of much greater experience of working in zero gravity. A crucial task, whether it is aligning and antenna or an EVA, shooting someone with a revolver or trying to shut an airlock door quickly to prevent an intruder forcing their way in, requires a skill check. For regular activities, skip the rolls entirely.
Avoid Losing Control in Zero-Gravity: Zero-G, Dexterity, Instant, Average (+0)
Apply the following DMs: Using a tool to repair/construct -2, Firing a gun -3, striking with tool, weapon, fist etc., or pushing/pulling -4, using a handhold +2
Losing control means that the task has failed until control reestablished, the character is tumbling! Roll again to regain control, but this time there are no DM’s, either positive or negative, except for those derived from Zero-G skill and Dexterity characteristic.
Orbital 2100 v3, p. 125
Before we get into making a character for The Expanse, let’s also consider what the spacecraft in book and TV series show us.
Ships and Gravity
The Expanse Canon
Way back in October 2016 and February 2017 I did two posts on how I viewed the depiction of spacecraft in The Expanse in Cepheus Engine-terms. To recap, there are three basic forms of Maneuvering Drive (M-Drive) shown in The Expanse; the “Teakettle,” the fusion torch, and the Epstein Drive:
Flying teakettle was naval slang for flying on the maneuvering thrusters that used superheated steam for reaction mass. The Knight‘s fusion torch would be dangerous to use this close to the Canterbury and wasteful on such a short trip. Torches were pre-Epstein fusion drives and far less efficient.
Leviathan Wakes, Chapter 3
By doing some backwards math I worked out that the “Teakettle” tops out at 2-G acceleration. Based on the upper limits of the instruments in Solomon Epstein’s ship, the fusion torch appears to have a limit of 7-G acceleration. In the novella The Drive, Epstein’s new drive pushes him at something like 12-Gs and in Season One of The Expanse the Rochinante pushes upwards of 17-G acceleration. As fast and exciting a high-speed run is, the mundane reality of travel in The Expanse is that ships usually plod along at a much slower cruising rate. Judging from the book Leviathan Wakes and the novella The Drive it appears that “cruising speed” is somewhere around 0.3-G acceleration. This ‘minimal acceleration provides just enough g-force to avoid the penalties of zero-g activities. This low-G acceleration is also important to note because it plays into the design of the ships.
Ship Gravity Using Cepheus Engine
One of the major “handwavium” technologies in Classic Traveller and now Cepheus Engine is that with the advent of the gravity-based maneuver drives you also get artificial gravity, known in the Traveller setting as “Compensators”:
Compensators. Integral to Maneuver Drives, Gravitic Drives, and Lifters is an inertial compensation component which counteracts the effects on acceleration on occupants of the ship. (T5 v5.10, Book 2: Starships, “How Maneuver Works,” p. 101)
In The Expanse there is no artificial gravity device for spacecraft so we need to find some rules to help us depict what happens with too much, or too little, gravity and what design decisions can be made to compensate.
In The Expanse, there are two technologies for dealing with the crushing force of high-g acceleration. The first is acceleration gel; “Thirty minutes later, the engines kicked on, pressing him into the acceleration gel at a joint-crushing high-g burn for thirteen days, with one-g breaks for biological function every four hours.” (Leviathan Wakes, Chapter 46)
The second acceleration compensating technology is “The Juice:”
Going on the juice was pilot-speak for a high-g burn that would knock an unmedicated human unconscious. The juice was a cocktail of drugs the pilot’s chair would inject into him to keep him conscious, alert, and hopefully stroke-free when his body weighed five hundred kilos. Holden had used the juice on multiple occasions in the navy, and coming down afterward was unpleasant.
Leviathan Wakes, Chapter 5
Standing Up In Space
The design of ships in The Expanse is also driven by the lack of an artificial gravity device. Fortunately, the setting of Orbital 2100 is in our near future and leans heavily into pre-gravitic spacecraft design similar to The Expanse and therefore can be used as a guide:
The biggest difference in space technology is the absence of anti-gravity….Not only are the drives different but the lack of on-board gravity means the crew must operate in zero-G throughout the mission. The only way to mitigate this is the installation of spin habitats, or rotating sections of the spacecraft, that ‘simulate’ gravity.
For every four week period of continuous micro gravity exposure there will be a one point strength and endurance characteristic loss that will require 1d6 weeks of recover in a one standard gravity environment.
The two main methods of producing artificial gravity are:
Producing “rear is down” gravity
A ship under acceleration will produce thrust gravity. In this instance the ship’s internal layout will need to be perpendicular to the axis of the ship or ninety degrees to the line of flight.
Producing “out is down” gravity
For any type of method using centrifugal rotation to produce gravity, the internal layout must be aligned so that decks face inward towards the center of the rotation arc.
Anderson & Felix Guide to Naval Architecture, “Artificial Gravity,” p. 106
Having looked at many rules of Traveller and Cepheus Engine, how do I think characters from The Expanse could be portrayed?
Building a Better Belter
For Belter characters, at character generation I give each the Weak (Strength) and Weak (Endurance) trait from the CESRD alien species listing. I also give Belters the Vestibular System (Improved) alteration found in The Clement Sector supplement Tree of Life. Note that Belters grow up with the Zero-G skill so they instantly acclimatize when moving between different gravity world unless they cannot exercise or medicinal supplements are not available. To simulate the absence of such I ruled that they suffer loss of strength and endurance the same as if they were exposed to micro gravity for long periods.
I tend to generate and play Martian characters pretty much as a standard human. Being born, raised or living on Mars for any extended length of time automatically earns the Zero-G skill. Martian Marines, of course, are generated using the CESRD Marine career although I also draw upon materials found in The Clement Sector, in particular the sourcebook Hub Federation Ground Forces.
There are no specific rules in Cepheus Engine or Orbital 2100 for acceleration effects on characters. Looking at “Falling and Gravity “in CESRD (p. 164), we see that on a 1g world, a character suffers 1d6 damage per 2m of fall. The rules further specify that for higher g worlds, multiple the 1d6 by the planet’s gravity number. The Epstein Drive accelerates at 11-G which we can compute as 11d6 damage. The question is the time period in which this damage takes place. Falling is assumed to be instantaneous, but declaring 11d6 damage per combat round (every 6 seconds) does not seem to fit the events of The Drive. This seems excessive because an average character in Orbital 2100 (7 Strength/7 Dexterity/ 7 Endurance) only has 21 damage points until death. The “average” damage from 11d6 is 44, meaning an average character is dead twice over!
Perhaps we should assume the 11d6 damage takes place every space combat round (1,000 seconds/16.6 minutes) instead? This better reflects the painful, but non-instantaneous death like Solomon Epstein experiences in The Drive. It still seems like an excessive amount of damage guaranteeing a quick character death.
Looking around for a solution, and not finding one in the rules, I suggest a “house rule” that acceleration couches (built with that acceleration gel) absorb some of the damaging g forces. In This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury, acceleration couches in the Mercury spacecraft were designed to absorb 9G (assumed to be the maximum G at reentry). If we use couches to absorb, say, 10 of 11G, the character will have only 1g of damage (1d6) per space combat round. This means an average human may last as long as six space combat rounds, or about 100 minutes, before succumbing to the strangling G forces. We could also say that prolonged exposure to high-g, defined as more than 1-G acceleration but less than the 9-G acceleration gel couch rating, will subtract one from the strength and endurance characteristic every 16 space combat rounds (around 4 hours) unless there is a four-round (1 hour) break in acceleration at 1-G or less. This fits with the time period in Leviathan Wakes when talking about acceleration gel.
These Boots Are Made For Walking
One important piece of equipment is The Expanse is Magnetic Boots. Characters with the Zero-G skill automatically can use Mag Boots; other need 1d6 hours to acclimatize. (I’m so tempted here to say that, based on canonical events in the TV series, female characters get an automatic -2 DM on the time roll, but that would be gender biased, eh?)
Working In Space
When the player characters are in low-G or micro-G environments, I makes sure to use the Orbital 2100 working in space task check unless they are wearing Mag Boots (count as a handhold for the +2 DM) or the ship is moving with at least 0.3-G acceleration. I also enforce the A&F prolonged micro-gravity exposure rule.
Rochinante, Meet Broadsword and Azhanti High Lightning
Ships in The Expanse are built using what I call a “tower-ship” or “tail-sitter” design where the decks are arranged like floors in a building perpendicular to the axis of thrust. Classic Traveller and Cepheus Engine don’t have many designs to reference, but I will point out that the Azhanti High Lightning-class of cruisers (Classic Traveller Game 3 – Azhanti High Lightning) or the Broadsword Mercenary Cruiser (Classic Traveller Adventure 7: Broadsword) are built using a tower-ship/tail sitter design like the Rochinante. If you want to see a Cepheus Engine ship design that uses the tower-ship configuration I recommend you get Ship Files: Atticus Class Freelancer from Moon Toad Publishing (2017). This 100dTon ship is a tail-sitter not that much smaller than the Rochinante….
Having gone on something of a Traveller RPG kick of sorts, I recently dug into the vehicle combat rules for the game. Doing so brought back some good memories, as well as some bad ones.
When it comes to the Traveller RPG, combat historically was divided into two formats; personal and large-scale. For starships, the “personal” scale is what is known as “Adventure Class Ships (ACS).” ACS ship combat was first spelled out in Book 2: Starships (GDW, 1977). Larger ships, called “Battle Class Ships (BCS)” were detailed in Book 5: High Guard (GDW, 1977, 1980). Likewise, for ground combat, the personal scale was found in Book 1: Characters and Combat (GDW, 1977) and the corresponding ‘mass combat’ rules were in Book 4: Mercenary (GDW, 1978) written by one Mr. Frank Chadwick. However, for ground combat the publisher of Traveller, Game Designers’ Workshop, took it a step further. They published a set of 15mm miniatures rules by Mr. Chadwick called Striker (GDW, 1981). I was unable to buy Striker back in the day, but I did have a small Judges Guild game expansion, Lazer Tank, that whetted my appetite for more.
Mr. Chadwick also designed the planetary invasion game Invasion: Earth (GDW, 1981) that I lusted over but didn’t actually own until this year. Suffice it to say that when I thought of combat in the Traveller RPG setting, I viewed it though a Frank Chadwick set of lenses.
Over the years I was able to acquire Striker II (GDW, 1994), part of the Traveller: The New Era edition of Traveller. Striker II was also designed by Frank Chadwick and part of his GDW ‘house’ series that used the same basic miniatures rules for World War I in Over the Top (GDW, 1990), World War II in Command Decision (GDW, 1986+), and the modern era in Combined Arms (GDW, 1988+). It also didn’t hurt that Traveller-adjacent RPG games like Twilight: 2000 (GDW, 1986) used another Frank Chadwick design for their ‘mass combat’ rules, in this case a combination wargame/roleplaying game supplement called Last Battle: Twilight 2000 (GDW, 1989).*
Somewhere after Striker II, the vehicle combat rules for Traveller changed and Mr. Chadwick was forgotten. I first noticed this when I picked up the Mongoose Traveller edition of Book 1: Mercenary (Mongoose Publishing, 2008) and found a very abstract set of rules. Suffice it to say I found the “Battle System – Large Scale Conflict in Traveller” not to my liking. Further, it was obviously written by people that had NO IDEA about weapons. It was actually comical; in the first edition the furthest the heaviest support weapon (in this case a Tech Level 15 Meson Accelerator) could shoot was 1.5….kilometers. There were many reasons I came to dislike Mongoose Traveller, but as a wargamer this pathetic approach was a major reason for me to disengage from their product line.
I fought. I resisted. This was the time I was finally, after all those years waiting, to get my hand on a copy of Striker. I vowed never to use the Mongoose Traveller, non-Chadwick approach. That is, until the 2009 release of Mongoose Traveller Hammer’s Slammers (Mongoose Publishing, 2009). I love David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers series of stories. I mean, this obviously was a real sci-fi combat game with Mr. Drake writing the Forward. I was sure that this was going to make Mongoose Traveller ‘mass combat’ awesome!
Defanged by a Mongoose
I was severely disappointed in the Mongoose Traveller Hammer’s Slammers. Oh, I enjoy having the history and characters and equipment of Hammer’s Slammers translated into game terms. Combat was another matter, with two approaches used in the book, neither of which resonated with me.
“Chapter 9: Vehicle Combat” was an extension of the Mongoose Traveller personal combat rules. It introduced a new scale, “Vehicle Scale” into the game. This scale was supposed to be a bridge between the personal and starship scales. Vehicle combat also continued the “vehicle as a character” approach to game rules. Every turn, the player characters (PCs) or non-player characters (NPCs) got actions. The most important action was Attack which is a Skill Check. Let me show you an example of how it works:
Lieutenant Danny Pritchard with Gunner-Turrets 2 skill fires the 20cm Powergun of his M2A1 supertank against the side of a TR6BKU-1 Black Skorpion turretless tank killer. The range is 2km making this a Long Range shot (+0 DM). Pritchard’s tank is moving but less than half-speed (-1 DM) as he shoots. He rolls 10 on 2d6, modified to 11 (+2 Skill, -1 Moving) which is more than the 8+ required for a hit. The 20cm powergun rolls 20d6+20 Super Destructive damage. Super Destructive means the first 20 points of the target’s armor is obliterated; in this case the 132 points of side armor is reduced to 102. The 20cm powergun then scores 82 points of damage – which the 102 points of armor stops. The Black Skorpion has escaped destruction, this turn.
The Black Skorpion fires back (assume an average crew with Gunner 2). At Long Range the 22cm coilgun has a -1 DM. The 2d6 To Hit roll is 7, modified to 8 with the total +1 DM – barely a hit! The 22cm coilgun scores 14d6 MegaAP damage. The damage total rolled is 49. The MegaAP means that the coilgun ignores armor points equal to 4x the number of dice rolled – in this case 14×4 or 56 points of armor. However, the front of the M2A1 is a whopping 175 points.
Laughing, Pritchard halts his hovertank and lines up another shot. Hit on the side again, the Black Skorpion loses another 20 points of armor, leaving it with 82. The Slammer’s powergun scores 92 damage, of which 10 penetrate and convert to 3x Single hits. Rolling for hit location yields Weapon (1st Hit = No Effect) – Sensors (First Hit = -1 to all future sensor checks) – Hull (31 remaining).
“Chapter 10: Conflict,” starts off by saying, “The aim of the rules is not to precisely simulate a conflict but to give the Referee a framework for designing adventures.” There is certainly enough in this chapter to create battle situations, but the section “Resolving the War” seems to me like it is an adjudication system for, well, resolving the war! Except this time the resolution is highly impersonal with leaders and factions and DMs for successful missions. This is a campaign game system not a combat resolution model.
Cepheus Engine Rebirth?
After the debacle of Mongoose Traveller Hammer’s Slammers I went in search of other rule sets for use in my Traveller campaigns. I experimented with both Dirtside II (1993) and Stargrunt II (1996) from Ground Zero Games. I tried Tomorrow’s War (Second Edition) from Osprey Publishing (2011). I really like Dirtside II as it has a vehicle design system like in Striker but it just feels a bit off when in play.
What do I want? I want a good, clean set of large scale combat rules that use skills and vehicles created in Cepheus Engine. I want an updated Chadwick; maybe a relook at Striker with modern publishing sensibilities and approaches to game mechanics. Sure, some will say, “It’s an RPG, focus on the CHARACTERS!” Well, if you pay attention to what Mr. Chadwick told us in Striker several decades ago it will:
One important aspect in which Striker differs from previous miniatures rules is the role assigned to the player. In most games, a player simultaneously plays the role of every member of a military unit; no orders need to be given, and every man performs as the player likes. In Striker, realistic limitations have been put on the abilities of officers to command their units. Giving orders to subordinates is a time-consuming process; commanders will find it advisable to devise a simple plan and to give most orders in pre-battle briefings. Changes to this plan in the heat of action will be difficult except through on the spot leadership.
Striker: Rule Book 1 – Basic Rules, Introduction, p. 4
*To be clear, Last Battle: Twilight 2000 was designed by Tim Ryan but used Frank Chadwick’s First Battle system.
I bring up this history because the Eurisko incident often colors many peoples perceptions of High Guard. Since High Guard could be ‘gamed’ by a computer, many decry it as ‘broken’ and not a worthy version of a fleet battle game for the Traveller universe. I disagree. I enjoy High Guard and the companion Adventure 5: Trillion Credit Squadron. Sure, it’s a highly abstracted view of space combat in the Traveller universe, but that very abstraction is what makes it attractive.
The Traveller Itch
Having not picked up a Traveller book in a while, I recently had an itch to dive back into the rules. One awesome aspect of the Traveller series that I really enjoy is all the mini-games possible. From Character Generation (yes, I’ve died in CharGen), to world-building, to building ships, the rules of Traveller, and now the modern successor Cepheus Engine, allow you to create a wide diversity of elements in a system that ensures it all works together.
One setting for Traveller I really enjoy isThe Clement Sector from Independence Games. The Clement Sector is a ‘small ship universe’ where the limits of the “Zimm Drive” keep ships, at least those that are jump capable, under 5,000 Tons. With the Wendy’s Guide series of sourcebooks that detail out entire fleets, I wondered if The Clement Sector and High Guard could mix. So I experimented.
Anderson & Felix, Meet High Guard
Ships in The Clement Sector are constructed using the Anderson & Felix Guide to Naval Architecture. If you are a Traveller RPG historian, you will know that A&F is basically the modern day version of Book 2: Starships updated for Cepheus Engine. This means that A&F is not closely coupled to High Guard like the original Book 2: Starships or Adventure 5: Trillion Credit Squadron were. For my experiment this meant that in some places a little “interpretation” is needed to convert ships from the A&F stats to High Guard which uses the original Universal Ship Profile (USP). The USP was a series of numbers that takes much the details of a ship design and renders it into a single line alpha-numeric characters.
Powerplants, Energy Points, and Agility
In the original High Guard, ships were built with Powerplants that in turn produced Energy Points. As Book 5 stated, “Energy points are used for four purposes: powering weapons, shields, for maneuver drives (for agility), and for computers.” The key factor for High Guard was that ‘Agility’ rating derived by taking energy points not used for computers or weapons or shields and plugging them into the formula A=E/0.01M (where E= Unused Energy Points and M= Mass of the Ship).
Agility is one of the most abstracted elements of the High Guard design in a design that is full of abstractions. Book 5 defines it as follows:
Agility is the ability of a ship to make violent maneuvers and take evasive action while engaging hostile targets. A ship’s agility rating may never exceed its maneuver drive rating.
Book 5: High Guard (2nd Edition 1980), p. 28
It’s clear that Agility is distinctly different that a ship’s maneuver rating. Seeing how it is based on “excess power” it (at least to me) symbolizes how much more you can throw your ship around beyond the usual M-Drive abilities.
Which is the heart of the problem. You see, in A&F the energy requirements in a ship design are actually more simplified than in High Guard. The concept of Energy Points is simply not used in A&F. Unlike High Guard, in A&F computers and turret weapons (presumably this includes barbettes too) are “Unlimited by Power” per the Capital Ship Armament Tableon A&F p. 29. This same table specifies how many Bay Weapons per 1000 tons can be carried (based on the Power Plant Rating) as well as if a Spinal Weapon or how many Screens are allowed.
Without a direct translation between High Guard Energy Points and the Armament Power Table in A&F it is impossible to derive an Agility rating. So I asked myself, “How is Agility used in combat, and what would the difference be if it was not used?”
When resolving combat in High Guard, one nice part of the design is that there are actually very few modifiers to worry about (or remember). When making the initial To Hit roll, there really are only three modifiers:
+ relative computer size
– target agility rating
+ target size modifier
I was worried that, with this few modifiers to start with, simply removing the “- target agility rating” risked skewing the result. Wanting to preserve the intent of the design, I fell back on a lazy solution; change the modifier to “Minus Firers M-Drive Rating/Target M-Drive Rating (rounded down) IF RESULT IS POSITIVE – any NEGATIVE result becomes Target Agility= 0”.
The second area that needed interpretation was armor. In Cepheus Engine ship combat, the armor rating directly reduces the number of hits. So when a ship is attacked with a salvo of three Basic Missiles (Damage = 1d6 each) launched by a Triple Turret, if the target ship has Armor = 8 then the first eight hits are offset. When designing a ship using A&F, the default armor for higher Tech Levels is Crystaliron which can be added to ships in increments of 5% of the ships tonnage. The maximum armor factor is the Tech Level of the design or 12, whichever is less.
In High Guard, the type of armor is unspecified. Given the rather large armor factors in A&F designs, I wondered it I was over-armoring the designs. A close look at the High Guard Hull Armor formula gave me my solution. The Hull Armor formula tells the designer the percentage of the ship required for that armor factor. At TL 11 (standard in The Clement Sector) the formula is 3+3a where a is the desired armor factor. Using a little backwards math I quickly discovered that the Armor Factor given in a A&F design was using too much space, but if I used the number of “layers”– those 5% elements- the number worked. So a Moltke-class cruiser (Ships of the Clement Sector 3) which is listed as “Crystaliron x2 / 8 points” when converted to High Guard has Armor=2. Unlike Cepheus Engine where armor directly reduces the number of hits, in High Guard armor is a +DM when rolling on the Ship Damage tables. Using this backwards derived formula, armor in The Clement Sector ranges from +1 to +4; a much more reasonable range of modifiers than the +4 to +16(!) using the A&F factors.
Torpedoes are described in A&F as, “…true ship killers…heavy 2.5dT anti-ship missiles….” In A&F missiles inflict damage from 1d6 (Basic Missile) to 3d6 + Crew Hit (Nuclear Missiles). Comparatively, a Basic Torpedo will inflict 4d6 hits, a Nuclear Torpedo causes 6d6 hits, and the heaviest Bomb Pumped Torpedo scores 7d6 damage.
Assuming the High Guard missiles are nuclear, I was able to come up with approximated damage for each USP factor. I then reworked the table using the higher damage potential of the Torpedo. In the end it worked out that I could use the existing High Guard Turret Weapons table and, using the missile column, simply add +1 USP factor to get the Torpedo USP.
Rail Guns were another weapon found in A&F but not in High Guard. Using the same approach as I did for Torpedoes, I basically figured out that the 50-ton Rail Gun Bay had nearly the same hitting power of a 50-ton Missile Bay, so I used the same USP factor. The primary difference is in combat; the Short range of the Rail Gun earned it a restriction of being unable to fire when at Long Range in High Guard. At Short Range, the Rail Gun earned a +2 DM To Hit but used the Attacking Meson Gun vs Configuration table. This generally means that, absent those other To Hit modifiers, a Rail Gun battery needs to roll an 8+ on 2d6 to hit a Needle/Wedge configuration, or a 6+ to hit a Standard configuration, or an 11+ to hit a Dispersed configuration ship. Sort makes sense, right?
In High Guard the number of missiles one had aboard a ship was not a consideration. I always found this interesting given that combat in High Guard usually depicted larger, longer fleet engagements. The ship descriptions in the Ships of the Clement Sector includes the number of missiles on hand. Usually it is a mix of Basic, Nuclear, and Smart Missiles. As any logistics planner will tell you, you can’t face the enemy with an empty quiver of bows! I toyed around with the idea of breaking the load out into the number of turns each missile type could be fired (assuming one round of firing in a turn) but ultimately decided that breaking it out by missile is just too granular for the High Guard system of abstractions. Instead I took the number of missiles available and divided it by how many can be fired in one ‘volley’. This is the number of ‘volleys’ the ship gets before the stores are depleted. Probably only useful in a campaign game or as a special rule like an SDB on patrol too long facing a pirate with a near-depleted stores of missile– make every shot count!
So, now that I’ve done my homework, will I actually play a game of High Guard in The Clement Sector? Maybe. Like I said before, The Clement Sector is a ‘small ship universe’ meaning space battles are usually smaller affairs with few ships. High Guard is better at resolving larger fleet battles with larger combatants. In the The Hub Federation Ground Forces sourcebook, Appendix 1, some details of the “Battle of Beol” are provided. There may be enough there to make a fleet battle scenario.
Now that I think of it, the Battle of Beol also includes a ground campaign. Maybe I need to look at a Striker (GDW, 1980) campaign next?
Strom turned his attention from his mapping instruments and looked over at the panels that Ga’de, his co-pilot and fellow Scout, was now studying intently. The optical array had picked up something and flashed an alert. Whatever it was, it was unidentified for the moment.
“It’s small and cool,” Ga’de reported. “Maybe 5 dTons in size. Why is it in a retrograde orbit?”
“Yeah,” Strom thought out loud. “It’s coming straight at us.”
Ga’de glanced away from his instruments and over at Strom. His brow was furrowed. “They’re attacking?”
Strom was thinking out loud. “Since we got here, the western continent has not liked our presence. They’re the most vocal about the ‘danger’ of ‘outer space aliens’. They’ve made announcements that they are willing to fight to keep us out.”
Ga’de harrumphed. “What imbeciles. They just can’t accept that they’re not alone in the universe and somebody else made it to the stars before them. We offer them technology and they reject us because we threaten their ”culture’. Why can’t they see that we offer them the future?”
Inwardly, Strom agreed but talking about it was not the solution right now. “Can we get any sort of ID on it?” he asked.
Ga’de turned back at his instruments. “Hard to tell, optics seem to show something winged. Do they have manned small craft?”
On a small screen next to his station Strom consulted the few files they had on the planet so far. In a previous expedition they had raided what passed for a library on this planet and acquired an “Encyclopedia” but it was a physical paper document. It had taken a while to scan it into the computer and the cross-references were poor. Imagine that; a planet so backwards they didn’t even have the SmartNet yet!
“Yes, they are working on a crewed launch capability using capsules. But the only thing shown here is crude ballistic missiles, nothing more than TL5 at the best. Wings…that’s different,” Strom trailed off.
“Do we maneuver?” There was a nervous edge in Ga’de’s voice.
Strom considered. “We’re higher tech. And we have to finish this mapping mission. Besides, we can’t let them think they can push us around.” He paused for just a moment. “No. We maintain course.”
Optics continued tracking the black winged object. A bit nervous now, Strom nudged the thrusters a bit to slightly change their vector; a few moments later the black winged object adjusted too.
“That’s not right,” Strom thought. “It means it’s guided…by a hu-man?
The range was closing rapidly. The approach looked like it was going to be close.
Somewhat belatedly, Strom stirred into action. “Ga’de, get to the turret, fast.”
Ga’de got up and raced from the control cabin. The winged craft kept closing.
Strom watched his panel as the turret indicator light came on. His heart sank when Gade made his first call.
“Damn systems rebooting! Something about an urgent update!”
Strom strapped himself in as he started throwing switches. “Strap in, we’re gonna burn!”
Time seemed to slow to a crawl. Strom saw on the optics the winged beast release a smaller object that flared briefly and accelerated quickly towards his saucer. He saw out of the corner of his eye a warning from the radiation detector. He heard Ga’de cursing the Gods in the turret.
He reoriented the ship and punched the M-Drive. As Strom was slammed back in his chair by the acceleration he thought about his mission. The Quorum had sent them here to expand the frontiers of their small empire. Surely, this lesser-developed planet, just at the cusp of spaceflight, would welcome them. After all, they were a highly compatible species as secretive missions before had shown. Some of the specimens captured were still alive and helping the Quorum even now. Sure, some had resisted, but they were the exception, right?
The small missile flared again but brightly this time. It changed course to intercept Strom’s saucer. Before he could manuever again the small object exploded with a blinding flash of light. As the expanding atomic fireball rapidly washed over his saucer, Strom thought that, surely, their superior technology would save them. Surely….
Deep inside a bunker buried under a mountain, the General watched intently as the stream of information from SIDS, the Space Intruder Detection System, reported the nuclear detonation in orbit above. The Eastern Pact would be upset by the large EMP event above their continent, but setting them back while destroying the alien intruders was but a small price to pay for saving the planet.
The General glanced to his right at the two ‘Agents’ dressed in identical black suits. They kinda looked like that a-hole J. Edgar’s men, but something was not quite right. The older one had never smiled. The younger one kinda fidgeted until the older one glared at him then he too stood by emotionless. They didn’t even laugh at his spark plug joke. Shaking his head ever so slightly, the General swore under his breath that he would never understand why they wore sunglasses this deep inside the mountain.
Sighing, the General spoke up, “Control, take us to DEFCON 5. Ops, make sure all reports are are captured for Project Blue Book. Comms, get me a channel.”