Merry Christmas – The George Washington Way

Today is the 242nd anniversary of one of the greatest moments in American military history. On this day in 1776, General George Washington led his small Continental Army across the Delaware River. The crossing led the American victory at the Battle of Trenton the next day.

As we all sit warm and cozy in our homes, surrounded by family or friends and eating a festive meal, it is important to remember the sacrifice of General Washington and his small army. What a different world it might be if not for the actions of a few good soldiers.

Merry Christmas

 

#RPGThursday Retrospective -#ThousandSuns #Traveller

While stationed overseas in 2008, I was experimenting with new RPGs in search of a good science fiction game. I was in the middle of my Star Wars Roleplaying Game – Saga Edition experience but was not “feeling the love.” I wanted a sci-fi RPG more like the old Classic Traveller RPG. I didn’t want swords in space.

Thousand Suns Rising

I think it was through some gaming websites that I came across Thousand Suns by James Maliszewski and Richard Iorio II. The first thing that caught my attention was the liberal use of quotes from Golden age science fiction stories like Alfred Bester’s The Stars, My Destination. I also was attracted to the intent of Thousand Suns, as laid out in Chapter 1: Basics, The Game:

Science fiction, it’s been said, is really about the present, not the future. Consequently, a lot of older science fiction – including the works that inspired Thousand Suns – feels somewhat dated because the concerns of the time when they were written don’t always translate well across decades. Yet, older science fiction often joined a wide-eyed sense of wonder with an appreciation for classical archetypes that’s generally lacking in either the jaded cynicism of cyberpunk or naive optimism of transhumanist SF of the present day. Thousand Suns is an attempt to marry the best of the past to the best of the present to create exciting space opera roleplaying adventures in the imperial SF tradition.

Imperial science fiction – whether classical or contemporary – is a vast genre, both in terms of its literal scope and its diversity. Of necessity, it takes place over a large canvas, with hundreds, even thousands, of worlds as potential sites for adventures. Having such a large canvas allows it to encompass almost any kind of science fiction story, big or small. (p. 9)

While the setting potential initially drew me in, the game engine kept me interested. The core mechanic is called 12º. It is a very simple system:

Roll 2d12 and if the result is equal to or less than your Target Number (TN), the action succeeds. It’s as simple as that.

Your TN is a number based on two associated Abilities or skills plus or minus any modifiers. (p. 12)

Tests, or checks, come in three forms; Ability Tests, Skill Tests, and Opposed Tests. There is a narrative play element introduced with the possibility of Dramatic Failure or Dramatic Success. There are also Degrees of success to consider. There was also a difficulty ladder of modifiers to the TN.

Further reinforcing a narrative play element was the concept of Hooks and Action Points. Hooks were described as:

…roleplaying tools that describe some aspect of your character’s past history, personality, or connections to other characters, among other things….Each of these hooks is suggestive about your character and possibly about his relationship to the wider universe – both of which make them invaluable to the GM as he plans engaging adventures among the Thousand Suns.

Besides suggesting interesting things about your character to the GM, hooks have another more immediate benefit: Action Points. Action Points are a kind of dramatic “currency” you acquire by creating hooks. They can be traded for situational boons, such as bonuses to your Target Number, free re-rolls, and other benefits. (p. 16)

I found the idea of Hooks and Action Points fascinating. Hooks were a non-mechanical character aspect that gave the GM ideas for adventures. Action Points were a very mechanical element for the player to use to affect the luck of the dice, or even being able to go as far as “edit” a scene (p. 58).

Outside of a different core mechanic, and the use of Hooks and Action Points, the rest of Thousand Suns had a very Classic Traveller RPG feel to it. Character generation was not Traveller’s career, but instead a mix of point buy and “packages.” Vehicles/Spacecraft was very abstract combat process and design harkened back to a Classic Traveller Book 2 simple process. Even the World creation was – if not a near-direct copy of Classic Traveller – a close spiritual successor.

Looking at the book today for this retrospective, I now also realize that most of the book is rules, not setting. This is all the more surprising to me because I it was the implied setting – Imperial Science Fiction – that drew me in. In Thousand Suns there is a Meta-Setting, but even here (Chapter 7) it still offers options like:

  • The State – or Concordium – could be the “Second Federation” or “Empire of the Thousand Suns.”
  • The Head of State may be “The First Citizen,” “The Puppet,” “The Corrupt Politico,” “The Man of Vision,” The Zealot,” “The Emperor,” “The Doddering Fool,” “The Naif,” “The Once and Future Emperor,” or “The Tyrant.”

Even when Thousand Suns offered up a setting, it still gave options for the user to pick and chose from.

Lastly, Thousand Suns included a Bibliography which is really list of inspiration sources. This collection of books and stories are essential Imperial Science Fiction reading.

So much did I like Thousand Suns that I wrote a review on DriveThruRPG that proclaimed Thousand Suns was the spiritual successor to Classic Traveller.

That is, until I found Mongoose Traveller (MgT).

I am not sure how I acquired my first Mongoose Traveller book. I have two copies of the Pocket Rulebook. Like so many other long time Traveller players, I was immediately drawn in by the simple black cover with the red line crossing underneath the Traveller title. Inside I found a game system that I was very familiar, and comfortable, with.

Familiar, yet not identical. Character generation was more refined, with items such as Characteristic Modifiers, Background Skills, Connections, and different tables to add Mishaps, Events, and even Life Events. The core mechanic remained roll 8+ on 2d6, but now there was an expressly defined difficulty ladder. Personal combat was more abstracted, with actions and range bands and armor reducing damage. Space combat was even more abstracted, doing away with Classic Traveller’s vector movement and becoming more like an extension of personal combat. Other parts, like starship construction, animal encounters, worlds and trade were very similar to the LBBs.

Like Thousand Suns, MgT is mostly rules with little setting. There were no aliens in the Classic Traveller LBB, but they are present in MgT. My searchable pdf of the Main Rulebook only returns seven (7) instances of “Third Imperium,” the setting that has become synonymous with Traveller. Like I had so many times before, I missed the part which said, “While the Traveller rules can be used for almost any science fiction novel, movie or setting, the traditional setting for games is the Third Imperium of Mankind….”(p. 2). In some fashion, MgT achieved the goals set out by Marc Miller in Traveller 4 to be a universal science fiction rules system.

So Mongoose Traveller became my new RPG of choice. Over the next few years I would invest heavily in the system. But what MgT lacks is narrative play. Like its predecessor Classic Traveller, the GM is king. Looking back, as much as I love Traveller, I also think it was this time that I started wanted a system that had more narrative. I looked back fondly at James Bond 007 Roleplaying Game, and even Thousand Suns had narrative Hooks and Action PointsMgT lacked any nod to narrative elements and had no game economy.

My next purchases were a major step in the narrative direction, and opened up a who new gaming frontier to me.


Thousand Suns, Copyright 2008, Rogue Games, Authors James Maliszewski and Richard Iorio II.

Traveller ©2008 Mongoose Publishing. Traveller is a trademark of Far Future Enterprises and is used under license.

“The Traveller game in all forms is owned by Far Future Enterprises. Copyright 1977-2016 Far Future Enterprises.”

 

#RPGThursday Retrospective – Marc Miller’s Traveller (Imperium Games, Inc., 1996)

The 1990’s was a very dark time of my RPG history. I only bought three games in the entire decade, all of them science fiction-based. Prime Directive 1st Edition was the first and Marc Miller’s Traveller 4th Edition (T4) the second. Later I added The Babylon Project.

I had been a longtime Traveller player using the (now) Classic Traveller (CT) system from the late 1970’s and 1980’s. I had stopped buying RPGs in 1986, and missed out on MegaTraveller (MT) in 1987 and Traveller: The New Era (TNE) in 1992. As such, I missed just how much Traveller changed, with each edition not only using a different core mechanic but also covering a different milieu.

In the first section, The History of Traveller, Kenneth E. Whitman Jr. (now the infamous Ken Whitman) relates the five goals Marc Miller has for this new, 20th anniversary edition:

  1. A return to the similar structure of Classic Traveller while allowing for multiple levels of complexity depending on the needs and interests of individual players and referees.

  2. The production of a game design that encourages and promotes the fun of playing an enjoyable, exciting background.

  3. The opening of multiple eras or milieus to facilitate playing the Traveller science-fiction game system throughout the span of history, from 300,000 BC to 5,000 years in the future.

  4. Remaining consistent with previous editions in regards to historical events and game system results. Previous history as provided in any edition of Traveller stays largely the same in this edition, with certain details clarified or re-stated for consistency.

  5. Explicitly stating a standard of quality that promotes wholesome adventure and eliminates sexually-flavored art or content, unacceptable or vulgar language, and gratuitous, unnecessary violence. – p. 5

I don’t remember ever reading #5 before, and looking back in the mid-1990’s I apparently was blissfully unaware of whatever controversy this relates to.

The next section of T4, The Foundations of the Traveller Universe, lays out the themes of the setting background. I find it interesting that three types of players are addressed:

Casual Players: Anybody can play Traveller. The concepts are intuitive: travel, exploration, interaction, negotiation, combat, and all kinds of action. Individuals can role-play diverse characters or they can play themselves. Casual players can be so casual that they know nothing about the game system at all.

Detailed Role-Players: Traveller provides dedicated gamers the opportunity to role-play complex characters with strong motivations and intricate backgrounds. The Traveller system can be as informal or rich as the participants want.

System Engineers: The Traveller system presents referees the materials necessary to explore [the] Traveller universe in detail. Aspects such as starship design, world generation, vehicle descriptions, trade and commerce, animal generation, and encounters, are designed to meet two specific goals; as a prod to the imagination, and for creating custom equipment or information. – p. 8

I think most outsiders commonly see Traveller RPG players as only System Engineers!

After the obligatory “what is roleplaying” section, the book moves to character generation. In T4, there is virtually no difference in the character generation process from the CT-era. In keeping with goal #1, there are only 10 careers presented (an 11th, Psionisist, appears later).

Skills presents a very familiar list of skills and skill cascades along with Default (Level-0) Skills. I think this was the first time I recognized Level-0 skills in playing Traveller, and welcomed the addition of skills inherently simple enough to attempt without any formal training.

The heart of T4 was the next section, Tasks. Here I ran into problems. When reading through the brand-new T4 back then, I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t find the rule for “roll 2d6>8 for success.” That was because T4 uses a different task resolution system, one that involved four separate elements:

  • A target number – typically a skill matched with a primary attribute.
  • A dice code appropriate to the innate difficulty of the task.
  • The possibility of one or more difficulty modifiers, reflecting factors influencing the event, such as bonuses for helpful equipment or penalties for troublesome conditions.
  • Finally, the result, whether a success or failure, and the possible spectacular result. (p. 49)

The Target Number is really quite simple; add Primary Attribute plus Skill. For success, the player had to roll this number OR LESS. The Dice Code assigned difficulty and then gave the appropriate dice pool to be rolled. This was confusing because some difficulties, like Staggering, called for 3.5D. What was a .5D? Unfortunately the definition of a half-die was not in Tasks, but all the way back on p. 13 under Definition of Terms for Die or Dice. Difficulty Modifiers were often for equipment or environment and usually associated with an item or condition specified in the book. The modifiers change the Target Number. I also was confused at Uncertain Tasks which called for the Referee to roll dice for the players! Finally, the Result was usually a binary Pass/Fail condition, although Spectacular Results hinted at extraordinary outcomes. The rules specified the referee would decide the extent of the result, with player input welcome but not required. This was in keeping with the low player agency approach Traveller has always had.

In theory (and play), the T4 Task System is very easy. Making an Admin check to see if your paperwork passes? Lets see, Skill -1 plus Education 7 is a Target Number of 8. Referee says its an average (2D) check with no other modifiers. Roll 2D  for a 7 – Success!

Ground Combat uses the same basic approach except that range determines difficulty. Shooting a target at Short Range is a Difficult (2.5D) task. Depending upon the weapon, one might get a bonus if it is capable of shooting at longer ranges. Damage is given in whole die increments, with armor negating dies of damage.

Equipment, Surface Vehicles, Spacecraft, Space Travel, Psionics, World Generation, and Encounters all would of been familiar to CT players with two exceptions. Spacecraft used a new ship design sequence, called the Quick Ship Design Sequence (QSDS). Much like the old CT Book 2, this is a very modularized, building block, seemingly assembly-line ship design sequence focused on simplicity. These days I understand it was a radical change from the exceedingly complex and detailed Fire, Fusion, & Steel of TNE. The second change was in Space Combat. The ship-to-ship combat game focused on Adventure-class ships and was a mix of CT Book 2 and CT Book 5 High Guard. Again, this was a great step down from detailed TNE ship combat systems like Brilliant Lances or Battle Rider.

Section 14: Referee’s Introduction, actually includes rules for Skill Improvement, Learning, and Improving Characteristics. Coming once again from my CT background, these were dramatic changes that shocked me (as welcome as they were). There is also the obligatory Running Adventures and Campaigns which I too often skip. The next section, Trade and Commerce, is very near the familiar trade system of CT.

T4 includes two sample adventures. I didn’t pay much attention to these, instead focusing on the map for the Core Subsector in Milieu 0. I also closely read the updated Library Data.

What I Though of It Then – When I first read T4 I was lost. So much was the same as CT yet the core mechanic was totally different. That difference was enough to lose me. In those days, I was a concrete learner when it came to RPG mechanics. I was closed minded to nearly anything other than 2d6. Part of this was sci-fi elitism; I didn’t play d20 D&D because 2D6 sci-fi was far superior! At the same time, T4 was not different enough from CT to make me want to dig much deeper. I was also very comfortable with the Golden Era of the Third Imperium setting – I didn’t feel the need to explore Milieu 0 or any other alternative setting. Thus, T4 was put on the shelf and remained untouched.

What I Think of It Now – Over the years, T4 got a reputation of being a “hot mess.” Often times, this criticism revolves around poor editing of books or rules that seemingly contradict themselves. The criticism is justified at times; when reviewing the core book for this retrospective I found numerous cross-referencing errors, especially in the combat examples. Production values of the books were suspect. The layout is very unimaginative and many people feel the use of Chris Foss’ color art was not appropriate for the Traveller setting. T4 is seen as a useless edition and not worthy of even being talked about.

These days I take a more charitable view. In looking at the five goals set out in the book, I think T4 actually succeeds. This was probably a disappointment to those System Engineer players who seemingly want more detail. Part of why I love Traveller is that the world-building system is internally consistent and generally works together across a broad spectrum of equipment and information. I see T4 as aimed at the more Casual Player with a nod towards Detailed Role-Players. This iteration of Traveller steps back from the System Engineer dominance of TNE and it shows through the simplification of the rules. I also happen to be a fan of Chris Foss, and absolutely love his spaceships.

As much as T4 tried to embrace Casual Players, and entice Detailed Role-Players, the system ultimately suffers from a lack of narrative control and dampened player agency. The referee is clearly in charge in T4, like he has been since Classic Traveller. This lack of narrative access, combined with a reduction in System Engineer game subsystems, is what I think really doomed T4. It is very interesting to look at the 2008 release of Mongoose Traveller (MgT) and see just how much T4 and MgT are alike. Of course, MgT uses the classic 2d6 mechanic – maybe that made all the difference.

From an RPG-perspective, I give Marc Miller’s Traveller 4th Edition Totally Subjective Game Rating (Scale of 1-5):

  • System Crunch = 2 (Highly simplified mechanics)
  • Simulationist = 3 (Consistent world-building game systems)
  • Narrativism = 2 (Few concessions to narrative play; low player agency)

Marc Miller’s Traveller, Copyright (c) 1996 by Imperium Games, Inc. Traveller is a registered trademark of Far Future Enterprises. Used under license by Imperium Games, Inc. 

“The Traveller game in all forms is owned by Far Future Enterprises. Copyright 1977-2015 Far Future Enterprises.”

#SciFiFriday #TravellerRPG Legal Wars – Give me Advocate-1!

When can you write about the Traveller RPG? Can you sell what you write?

Traveller, in all its forms and editions, is copyrighted. Copyright protects the publishers (Far Future Enterprises and its licensees) from unauthorized copying or publication. Traveller and associated words and terms are trademarks. Trademark protection protects the publishers from unauthorized use of marks.

We have a liberal Fair Use Policy. If your activity is non-commercial, you can make copies to support playing the game, you can scan copies for your computer, you can write short programs and spreadsheets which automate processes within the game. You can make copies of pages as handouts for players. You can make web pages in support of Traveller.

Fair Use Explicitly Applies to non- Mongoose Traveller editions….Only Mongoose Traveller is governed by both the OGL and TTL….

FAQ FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

3. May I rewrite the game in my own words, scan parts of the book, or create any other derivative works.

No….You can write about the Traveller universe, and put it on your web site… but you can’t reproduce the rules (or reproduce re-writes of rules, etc.) except for about a page (because we give you permission to do that, provided you post the proper acknowledgement).

Far Future Enterprises Fair Use Policy, (C) 2008

Here is the copyright notice in the Mongoose Publishing Traveller Core Rulebook, (C)2008:

Traveller (C)2008 Mongoose Publishing. All rights reserved. Reproductions of this work by any means without the written permission of the publisher is expressly forbidden. All significant characters, names, places, items, art and text herein are copyrighted by Mongoose Publishing.

This game product contains no Open Game Content. No portion of this work may be reproduced in any form without written permission.

In September 2008, Mongoose made available the Traveller Developer’s Pack. The pack included a series of Open Game License (OGL) System Reference Documents (SRD) for Traveller, Mercenary, High Guard, and Vehicles. These SRDs pertain exclusively to the rules of Traveller, not any setting.

Legal rights were explained in the Read Me First document of the Developer’s Pack:

I want to produce material based on older and out of print versions of Traveller, and publish them on a non-commercial basis.

Consult the Fair Use Policy Document.

I want to produce and publish my own original material using the current Traveller rules – both commercially and non-commercially.

Consult the Traveller Logo License.

The Read Me First document also stated:

What Can’t I do?

The following is not permitted under the Traveller Developer’s Pack – if you wish to attempt one of these projects, you should contact Mongoose Publishing for further information at msprange@mongoosepublishing.com. This is not a comprehensive list, and you should get in contact if you want to do anything not covered by the Fair Use Policy or Logo Licenses.

  • Publish material for older and out of print versions of Traveller, and release them commercially.
  • Publish software based on the current edition of Traveller.
  • Publish Original Traveller Universe material beyond the confines of the Fair Use Policy or Foreven Free Sector Logo License.

This arrangement was fine; third party publishers like Zozer Games and Gypsy Knights Games could legally publish alternate settings using the then-current Mongoose Traveller (MgT) first edition Core Rulebook. That is, until Mongoose stopped selling the first edition, thus making any commercial release based on the first edition rules ILLEGAL.

Mongoose Publishing currently sells the second edition of MgT. Like the first edition, the game contains no Open Game Content. At the same time the second edition was released, Mongoose entered into an agreement with OneBookShelf (the company that brings us DriveThruRPG.com) to create the Travellers’ Aid Society (TAS) and brought the Community Content Agreement (CCA) to the Traveller gaming community. The CCA allows for commercial uses of the MgT Core Rulebook “…provided that they only use the game system rules and game terms found in the current [my emphasis] edition Traveller books published by Mongoose Publishing.” The real interesting part of the CCA is how the agreement grants Mongoose broad rights to YOUR IP:

“User Generated Content” shall be defined as the copyrightable elements included in your Work, such as original characters, scenes, locations and events. User Generated content shall not include the illustrations and cartographic artwork included in your work. Per the terms of this Agreement, you expressly agree that your User Generated Content, once submitted to the Program will become Program IP and useable by other members of the Program as well as the Owner as described in this Agreement.” Web Post by Harl Quinn – 05-02-2016

What this means is if you are a third party publisher who wants to sell an original setting using the MgT second edition rules, the only way you can legally do so is to use TAS and GIVE UP your IP to Mongoose (not to mention that posting to TAS also means you give up a larger portion of the financial proceeds of the sale to Mongoose and OBS).

The combination of no Open Game Content in the “current” MgT second edition and the CCA effectively means there is no allowable commercial use of the “current” edition rules other than that specified by the CCA. Most importantly, any IP you place in TAS no longer belongs exclusively to YOU; Mongoose and ANY OTHERS can use YOUR IP freely.

Gypsy Knights Games in the comments adds: “I would like to correct one small thing in this post. While it is true that Mongoose and anyone else who likes can use any part of your IP in any way they want, it is important to note that the person using your IP must also be part of the CCA/TAS agreement. It is a small distinction but I think it is an important one.”

Mongoose is not the only publisher with a CCA. Wizards of the Coast has their Dungeon Master’s Guild,  Margaret Weis Productions has their Cortex Plus Creator Studio, and Monte Cook Games has their Cypher System Creator. I can appreciate these folks trying to protect their IP, or in the case of Margaret Weis protecting several licensed IP.
I also totally agree with the third party publishers who don’t like this arrangement. I wrote about that earlier this year, when the outlook looked very bleak. I didn’t see anybody taking the Evil Hat Productions approach of releasing most of their line under not one, but two proper-use licenses.

Thankfully, the future looks much brighter now, thanks to Jason “Flynn” Kemp of Samardan Press. Mr.Flynn has taken the Traveller OGL SRDs and created the Cepheus Engine System Reference Document: A Classic Era Science Fiction 2D6-Based Open Game System. Quite a mouthful, but important for the Advocate skill-holders out there.

Please Note: This product is derived from the Traveller System Reference Document and other Open Gaming Content made available by the Open Game License, and does not contain closed content from products published by either Mongoose Publishing or Far Future Enterprises, and it makes no claim to or challenge to any trademarks held by either entity. The use of the Traveller System Reference Document does not convey the endorsement of this Product by either Mongoose Publishing or Far Future Enterprises as a product of either of their product lines. – Cepheus Engine System Reference Document (c) 2016.

The impact of the Cepheus SRD has been near-instantaneous. Zozer Games has published Orbital 2100: A Solar System Setting for the Cepheus Engine Game. This week, Gypsy Knight Games released Clement Sector: The Rules (An Alternate Cepheus Engine Universe). The GKG rules follow a major rework of their entire (formerly) Traveller RPG-releated line to make their products OGL compliant, even going so far as to strip the word “traveller” from all their books. These products are great because the rise of Cepheus has given me my 2d6-based Sci-Fi adventure gaming mojo back!

You know what? I’m OK with that.

I’m OK because after years of disappointing Mongoose content and watching the roll-out of their second edition (which fails to impress me) I now understand Mongoose is making a naked attempt to take back commercial profits of an IP that the OGL SRD release gave away. Mongoose wants to make bank not only on the Classic Era Third Imperium setting, but any other setting that uses “their” rules engine.

Since 1979 I have gamed with Traveller, but Jason “Flynn” Kemp, Paul Elliott at Zozer, and John Watts at Gypsy Knights Games have together taught me I don’t need “Traveller” to play a fun 2D6-Based Classic Era Sci-Fi RPG.

————-

Post Script: But wait, isn’t there another “current” Traveller RPG out there? All this legal wrangling over MgT second edition also got me thinking about Traveller5. According to the front plate in the T5 Print Edition 5.1:

Copyright (C) 2015 Far Future Enterprises.

All Rights Reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means without express written permission from the publisher.

FFE maintains a FUP Fair Use Policy (available on request) detailing reasonable uses of the Traveller5 game system (including references to the material, copying, web presences, and derivative works) while still respecting its copyright and intellectual property.

It appears that T5 is not Open Game Content but allows reasonable non-commercial use. Not being governed by the Open Game License will require negotiating commercial-use with FFE.

“The Traveller game in all forms is owned by Far Future Enterprises. Copyright  1977-2015 Far Future Enterprises.”

 

#RPGThursday Retrospective – Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game 1st Edition (FASA, 1983)

At the risk of making many enemies, I admit that I am not really a Star Trek fan. No, it’s not that I am a rabid Star Wars fan (especially in light of what Disney/JJ Abrams is doing to the franchise these days) but in my early wargaming days my view of Star Trek was shaped by a little wargame called Star Fleet Battles (SFB)

SFB takes place in what has eventually come to be known as the Star Fleet Universe. As noted on Wikipedia:

The Star Fleet Universe (SFU) is the variant of the Star Trek fictional universe detailed in the series of Star Fleet Battles games (board-, card-, and role-playing) from Amarillo Design Bureau Inc. and used as reference for the Starfleet Command series of computer games. Its source material stems from the original and animated series of Star Trek as well as from other “fan” sources, such as The Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual. In addition, it also includes a substantial number of new races and technologies, such as the Hydran Kingdom, the Inter-Stellar Concordium and the Andromedans.

Star Fleet Battles was based on the Star Trek universe as of 1979 and includes elements of Star Trek: The Original Series and Star Trek: The Animated Series. Federation elements were heavily based on concepts from The Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual. Unlike the mainstream Star Trek universe, Star Fleet Battles seems to consider some, but not all of The Animated Series, as being a canon material source, thus leading to the inclusion of aliens such as the Kzinti, which had originally been created for a non-Trek story series.

Since the first publication of the game, Star Fleet Battles and the Star Trek universe have diverged considerably as the authors of the game and those of the films and television series have basically ignored each other. The resulting divergent world of Star Fleet Battles is known as the “Star Fleet Universe”. – Star Fleet Universe Wikipedia

The SFU did not get a RPG until the publication of Prime Directive in 1993. But in 1982, FASA published Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game. The game release was at an interesting time in the history of Star Trek, coming a few years after the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the same year as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Although FASA has a license from Paramount, it appears that the studio pretty much left FASA on their own. As a result, the game designers were able to pick-and-choose what “canon” they wanted:

It was left to us to determine what was the “essential” STAR TREK material, leaving it to gamemasters and players to add whichever specialized material they preferred on their own. – Core Rulebook 2001A p. 126

In terms of game mechanics, ST:RPG was published by FASA only a year after their award-winning Behind Enemy Lines RPG. ST:RPG is another interesting game where the differences between an RPG and wargame get murky.

ST:RPG is composed of three major game systems; Character Generation (Chargen), Combat, and Starship Combat. The Core Mechanic rolls Percentile Die (2d10 read 10’s-1’s) compared to Attribute or Skill – roll under for success.

Character Generation and Advancement is very RPG-like. Chargen uses a career path system after generating Attributes (Strength, Endurance, Intelligence, Dexterity, Charisma, Luck, and Psionic Potential). Luck (LUC) is the most interesting because this attribute first introduced me to a more narrative way of playing RPG’s:

LUC saving rolls are used in this game when the gamester believes situations may be affected by pure chance and coincidence. The object of this game is not to kill off player characters, and setting up a total adversary relationship between players and the gamester limits the enjoyment of the game. Therefore, the gamemaster should use a LUC saving roll attempt at times to give a player a chance to bail himself out of a tricky situation. A saving roll of this type should always be given to a player character ( or a non-player character who is an established STAR TREK character) who is in imminent danger of death or other tragedy. Temper the use of saving rolls with common sense, but do use them when necessary. Sure, it hampers realism, but STAR TREK should reflect television realism, not reality. – Core Rulebook 2001A p. 12

ST:RPG includes rules for skill advancement. This was a whole new world to me; Classic Traveller is famous for NOT having a skill advancement system! Even so, the skill advancement system in ST:RPG is very simplistic:

Once play has begun, skill may increase with use. After each adventure scenario, or each major mission of a continuing campaign, the gamemaster should have each player who saw action make a saving roll against his character’s INT [Intelligence] score. If the roll is successful, the player may roll 1D10 and add the resulting number of hits to his skill level in any one skill he possesses that was used during the course of the adventure.

Gamemasters are encouraged to give a few bonus points (maximum of 3) in a skill to a player who pushes his skill to the limit in the course of an adventure (that is, makes a difficult saving roll), thus learning something in the process. Extra points should also be awarded to anyone who has the opportunity to closely observe someone of a higher skill level engaged in a skill-related activity of a more routine nature. To get this bonus, however, the person who is teaching (not the one receiving the extra skill points) must make a saving roll on his or her own INSTRUCTION skill. If the saving roll is failed, no skill is gained by watching. – Core Rulebook 2001A p. 38

As simple as skill advancement was, it was still a more narrative-flavor of RPG that was very new to me at that time.

As much as Chargen with LUC and skill advancement was moving towards a more narrative RPG experience, Combat was a firm step back into the realm of wargames. Indeed, in the Tactical Combat Notes section of the Designers Notes they unabashedly proclaim:

When trying to decide how to design this section, we remembered one old adage – when something works well, use it! And this is exactly what we did. We had been playing GRAV BALL (by FASA). We enjoyed the movement and action system. It worked well, giving the feel of simultaneous movement while retaining a simple system. Most si-move systems require paper plotting of moves in advance. While realistic results can be obtained, the system is slow and cumbersome….

Combat evolved from our working knowledge of almost every game published on tactical combat. From the action list and character system we had it was a simple matter (although lo-o-o-o-ng!) to develop this aspect. Again, we just”worked through” what really happens in a combat situation. We drew on our own and other’s experience (you should see the looks we got from neighbors) and worked out situations live. – Core Rulebook 2001A p. 128

As a result, the Combat system is (once again) a very wargame-like, skirmish-combat system using facing and Action Points on a gridded map for range and movement. When rereading the rulebook, I found it interesting that the Combat Examples (which is really just one example) starts on page 55 and ends on page 59! Admittedly, there are a few moments in the “wargame” example where role-playing is invoked, but it certainly is a rare exception and NOT the rule! Like this moment:

Wagner moves as shown, coming through the door (which opens automatically), stepping over the fallen Klarn, and moving towards the door. The gamemaster stops Wagner and requires a normal saving roll on DEX [Dexterity] be made to step over the fallen Klingon without tripping (since Wagner is moving fast under stress). Wagner’s DEX is 76 and he rolls a 31 – no problem! – Core Rulebook 2001A p. 57

The third game system is Starship Combat. Here is where the designers attempted to balance the need to role-play with a tactical wargame:

Where STAR TREK is different is in the approach to combat. A simple boardgame could have been used, but STAR TREK as developed here is intended as a role-playing experience. Unlike other tactical space combat systems, STAR TREK offers the opportunity to “role play” during ship combat as well as during ground or ship based adventures.

In the system presented here a number of players will interact, cooperating in an attempt to defeat an enemy ship (or a number of ships). The atmosphere of a game session then becomes much like that on a bridge of a starship, with each player having a responsibility to control one part of the ship’s functions.

To keep track of ship functions in play, each player uses a control sheet or panel. These players will communicate vital information back and forth during combat, using their panels to record the turn-by-turn changes in power levels, ship’s weaponry status, crew casualties, and more. – Core Rulebook 2001A p. 102

To assist in world building, rules for creatures/animals and world characteristics were also included. These systems are very Classic Traveller RPG-like in their mechanical approach and don’t stand out in any way to me.

What I Thought of It Then: As a Star Fleet Battles/Star Fleet Universe fan, the different canon of ST:RPG confused me. I remember always trying to “fit” ST:RPG into the SFU. I also remember our gaming group really trying to play the starship combat game (again, a need to make it more SFB-like). As an RPG, the game didn’t really attract our attention. We instead focused on the starship combat module. We played the wargame and not the RPG.

What I Think of it Now – Looking at FASA’s Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game today, I realize I missed a great opportunity in 1983 to play an RPG that was starting down the path towards a more narrative game. All the clues I needed were in the rules – I just had to read them and embrace the concepts. A good example of play is often helpful, and in ST:RPG there is a short example of play that unfortunately is buried just before the Designers Notes. It doesn’t even have its own header. When I read it now, I “see” the RPG game within ST:RPG. That said, the example also makes me cringe a bit at the “state of the RPG art” in 1983. References to pocket calculators and a very lopsided sharing of narrative were the norm:

GAMEMASTER: Your ship is two days out from Calvery IV, proceeding at Warp 3, on a routine call to deliver a Federation diplomatic pouch and other official greetings. Unexpectedly, your communications officer picks up a faint subspace signal from the direction of that system, calling for Federation assistance. The message is too faint to make out much else, and it is unlikely in this part of space that any other Federation vessel will intercept the signal.

CAPTAIN: Can the communications officer pick up anything else?

GAMEMASTER (to communications officer): Make a standard saving roll on Communications Procedures.

COMMUNICATIONS OFFICER (rolling): I made it! What do I hear?

GAMEMASTER: There’s lots of interference, but by switching antennas you get a bit more. The voice is male and human-sounding. You catch a reference to “the insect plague” and another to “Government House” being “besieged by the horde.” Abruptly, in mid-sentence, the message stops and you pick up no further transmission.

CAPTAIN: That sounds urgent! And we’re three days away at Warp 3! How far at Warp 6?

GAMEMASTER: Warp 3 is 27 times lightspeed and Warp 6 is 216 times lightspeed. That’s 8 times as fast.

CAPTAIN (consulting pocket calculator): That’s…nine hours or so. (To navigator and helmsman) All right Mr. Devareux, Mr. Wickes…increase our speed to Warp 6 on the same course. (Turning to communications officer) Mr. L’rann, send a message to Star Fleet Command detailing the situation and tell them we’re on our way.

GAMEMASTER: Just so you’ll know, it will take six days at this distance for a message to reach the nearest starbase.

CAPTAIN: So we’ll be on our own. Very well, The science officer will consult the library computer for information on the planet. Department heads will meet in the briefing room in thirty minutes for discussion.

SCIENCE OFFICER: Captain, a computer file search on insect life on Calvert IV might be appropriate…

CAPTAIN: So ordered, Commander Levine. (Dropping out of character) Everybody check with the gamemaster on your own departments. I’m going to grab a snack! – Core Rulebook 2001A p. 125

From an RPG-perspective, I give Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game Totally Subjective Game Rating (Scale of 1-5):

  • System Crunch = 2 (Simple Core Mechanic but mostly combat-focused)
  • Simulationist = 4 (“Wargame” combat systems)
  • Narrativism = 2 (LUC to overturn events)

#Mindjammer #RPG Initial Thoughts

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Mindjammer: The Roleplaying Game -Transhuman Adventure in the Second Age of Space.
By Sarah Newton (Twitter @SarahJNewton). Powered by the FATE Core engine.

I was able to pick up Mindjammer in hardcover during the close out sale of a FLGS. I was interested because I had heard (somewhere) that Mindjammer was thought by some to be Traveller at Tech Level 16+. At the time I write this post there is a Kickstarter Campaign underway that includes Traveller Mindjammer as a stretch goal. Given my love of Traveller, I decided to look at this game closer.

The Core Rulebook is 497 pages long…most of it setting and the rules associated with it. Mechanically, Mindjammer is a solid game that shows the awesome potential of the FATE Core engine. Setting-wise, the book is (over)full of adventuring potential. Mindjammer does not try to pigeon-hole the players into a particular theme, style, genre, or trope. The  Mindjammer setting describes the New Commonality of Mankind using hyper-technology – especially the Mindscape and FTL travel – to reach out and contact long-lost colonies. I read reviews elsewhere that recommend using the book with a toolbox approach but I personally find that hard since the rules and setting are so closely intertwined that separating out one piece is difficult. I also feel that FATE Core, being a more narrativist approach to RPGs, is a bit of an advanced system for players and GMs to begin with. What this book seemingly lacks is a “putting it all together” example. I have heard some describe the first expansion, Hearts and Minds, to be just that.

As far as the Kickstarter is concerned, I may back it at the PDF MASTER level (~$30). This reward does not include the Hearts and Minds book but I can pick that up for $8.99 this weekend on DriveThruRPG. As much as I am a Traveller RPG fan, I am hesitant given the new Mongoose Traveller 2nd Edition Rules (still in Beta?) which I am less-than-impressed with.

Family Friday – Holiday Gaming

This holiday we were blessed to have my niece and nephew visit from Korea. Looking for games to play that required little English, we pulled out Ticket to Ride. The game was a huge hit. I myself played six games of the original Ticket to Ride, Ticket to Ride Europe, the 1910 and 1912 expansions, as well as TTR Asia. The kids played literally EVERY day; sometimes more than once! This was definitely THE HIT GAME of the holidays.
Other games that got much play included Qwirkle, Fundomino, Rush Hour, Abandon Ship, and even Bananagrams (yes, I know that one requires English but put my 4th grader up against an international college student was a bit unfair – for the international student!)

Threat Tuesday – Even Decommissioned Iowa Looks Mean!

Courtesy Reuters Pictures

The battleship USS Iowa approaches the Port of Los Angeles where it will become a floating museum in the San Pedro section of Los Angeles, California, May 30, 2012. The battleship USS Iowa served the United States for six decades and carried the late President Franklin Roosevelt across the Atlantic to his historic meeting with Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin in World War Two. Despite extensive repairs, the 887-foot gray dreadnought is being moved by tug from Richmond, California because a U.S. Navy contract forbids the powerful battleship to be fully operational outside of navy control. Reuters Pictures