My #TravellerRPG #Wargame – Using @IndependenceGa6 The Clement Sector setting in High Guard

Ever heard of Eurisko? If you played the (now Classic) Traveller RPG back in the early 1980’s, and especially if you played with capital ships or fleets in Book 5: High Guard or Adventure 5: Trillion Credit Squadron, then you probably heard of it. Eurisko is a representational language written in the Lisp Programming Language that learns through heuristics. Think of it as an early form of AI. Eurisko was used to design the 1981 winner of the Traveller Trillion Credit Squadron National Tournament at the Origins Game Fair that year. In 1982 Eurisko won again. Threatened with the end of the tournament if he entered again, Dr. Lenet withdrew Eurisko from further competition.

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.

The Clement Sector: Core Setting Book from Independence Games

One setting for Traveller I really enjoy is The 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 Table on 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”.

For instance, say a Rattlesnake Attack Craft with M-Drive=5 from Ships of The Clement Sector 7 has jumped a Rucker-class Merchant from Ships of the Clement Sector 16 converted into the System Security/Escort Armament variant with M-Drive=2. When the Rattlesnake attacks the relative drive rating (5:2) computes to a factor of 2, giving the Rattlesnake a -2 DM on its To Hit rolls (better relative “agility”). On the other hand, when the Rucker shoots at the Rattlesnake the relative rating is 2:5 giving a result of -2 which becomes 0 DM modifier.

Armor

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

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

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?

Missile Stocks

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!

Into Battle?

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?

Hmmm….


Feature image courtesy roleplayrescue.com

Red Alert – or Dread Alert?

Richard Borg’s Red Alert: Space Fleet Warfare is up on Kickstarter at the moment. Offered by the Plastic Soldier Company (PSC) I can pledge to support for about 120 US dollars.

Bonding with Board Games posted this “digital preview:”

While the game topic (theme?) is interesting to me, as a longtime naval and space warfare gamer I have mixed feelings.

First, I am not sure that the Left-Center-Right concept of a battlefield makes sense for space combat. The core issue in any space combat game is how to show three-dimensional combat on a 2-D board. Who can forget the classic “two dimensional thinking” in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan?

Most space games simply ignore the three dimensional aspects. Other games, like Squadron Strike: Traveller (another Kickstarter I am – still – waiting for) make it part of the game, albeit at greater complexity.

Some space combat games take the other extreme. A favorite game of mine is the space combat system found in the (Classic) Traveller RPG Book 5 High Guard. This game system has its weaknesses, as defined by the famous Eurisko incident using the Trillion Credit Squadron (TCS) tournament rules:

Trillion Credit Squadron was used as a test case for artificial intelligence researcher Douglas Lenat’s machine learning system Eurisko. Lenat programmed the TCS tournament rules into Eurisko, and the system designed a fleet of large, stationary, defenseless, and heavily armed ships.

  • This fleet then won the 1981 TCS national championship tournament at the Origins ’81 convention. GDW changed the rules for the following tournament, but Eurisko adapted to the changes and its fleet won the championship again. GDW threatened to cancel the tournament if a Eurisko-designed fleet entered again, and Lenat declined to do so, accepting the title “Grand Admiral” as consolation.[1] Lenat’s 1981 fleet design (including 75 Eurisko class Gunships) was printed in JTAS issue #10. (http://wiki.travellerrpg.com/Trillion_Credit_Squadron)

So the question facing me is playability or realism? More directly, is this game worth $120 of fun with my family, or is it $120+ of personal frustration? As I look at the campaign this morning, the Carrier Escalation Pack has unlocked, for a mere £14.50 extra. PSC apparently hopes we all subscribe to the old saying. “in for a penny, in for a pound.”

Then there is my usual Kickstarter concerns. Giving $120 +shipping +expansion packs NOW for a game SCHEDULED to deliver in March 2019 (or 9 months from campaign end) is becoming harder to accept.

As appealing as the is campaign looks to the RockyMountainNavy Boys, I think I am going to pass. The money involved can get us lots more gaming products NOW rather than a riskier investment into the future.

#Wargame Retroactive – Mayday (Traveller Game 1, Series 120, GDW 1983)

pic900819_mdWhile I’m waiting for my Squadron Strike: Traveller Kickstarter to deliver, I went back to my first vector movement starship combat game. The game is Mayday from the Classic Traveller RPG-universe. I have the third edition GDW flat box, copyright 1983, with the Series 120 rulebook copyright 1978 and 1980. A Series 120 game was supposed to be playable in under two hours. The back of the box taught me what mayday means and why it may still matter in the future:

 

In the earliest days of radio, a standard distress call was established using the international language of the day. In French, the simple statement help me was expressed m’ai dez. English-speaking radio operators pronounced and spelled the word as mayday. Since then, the word has become as accepted as its Morse code predecessor S.O.S.

In the future, it is likely that monitoring stations will receive the same call from the depths of interplanetary space, faintly repeating a position and a single word, mayday.

Mayday is a science fiction game of small spacecraft in danger, distress, and ship-to-ship combat. The ships are out-fitted by each player with a variety of laser weapons, missiles, defensive systems, and computer packages. Using realistic vector movement, players maneuver their ships against each other on a hexagonal grid. Scenarios include The Grand Prix, The Attack, Piracy, Battle, and Smuggling.

Mayday is played “using realistic vector movement and intriguing combat systems….” Recently, I closely looked through the short (15 page), digest-size rulebook and was struck by both how simple the game was, and yet how much detail and universe-building was contained within.

A Small-Ship Universe

pic514041_mdMayday was also marketed as Traveller Game 1. Mayday took Traveller Book 2 Starships and brought it into a hex and counter setting. What struck me looking through the book is that Mayday is firmly in the “small ship Traveller universe.” Section 8. Ships provides the following starships:

  • Scout (100 ton)
  • Courier (100 ton)
  • Escort (100 ton)
  • Free Trader (200 ton)
  • Yacht (200 ton)
  • Transport (400 ton)
  • Armed Merchant (400 ton)
  • Destroyer (400 ton)
  • Colonial Cruiser (800 ton)
  • Corsair (400 ton)

Small craft are also fuel-limited in Mayday. The Fighter is rated “4G12” meaning it has a maximum acceleration of 4G in a turn, and cannot make more that a total of 12G of acceleration/deceleration before running out of fuel.

Vectoring About

Mayday is the game the taught me what vector movement is. Each starship, small craft, or missile has three counters; the past position, the present position, and the future position. The use of these three counters allows one to readily see the vector movement of the combatants. This easy vector movement system is what I had always focused upon and I didn’t really pay attention to the combat.

Lasers and Missiles Oh My!

In the Mayday version of the Traveller universe there are basically two offensive weapons; Lasers and Missiles. Of the two, the Laser is the most common starship and small craft weapon. However, a close analysis of the Attack Table and Damage Table reveals it is actually not the best weapon. Without consideration of any modifiers, a Laser will hit a starship 58% of the time, whereas a Missile will hit 83% of the time. Against small craft, the chances are 42% for Lasers and 58% for Missiles.

pic516813_mdLasers are also very close-range weapons realistically effective out to no more than 5 hexes (or 5 light seconds). This is because Laser Fire has a -1 Die Modifier (DM) for each hex of range. [Interestingly, Mayday page 12 references Traveller Book 5: High Guard and its fleet combat rules. The Mayday rules state that ships with matched courses (same hex, course, speed) are at “boarding range.” Short range is within 5 hexes (5 light seconds). Long range is beyond 5 hexes, but less than 15. Ships beyond 15 hexes/15 light seconds range are “out of range” and cannot fire.]

The damage potential of a Laser versus a Missile is also dramatically different. If a “hit” is achieved a Laser gets one roll on the Damage Table whereas a Missile gets two rolls if it has a proximity fuse or three rolls (!) if it uses contact detonation. This dramatic difference in damage potential finally brought home to me, more than any number of damage dice, the difference in the power of these two weapons systems in Traveller. It also vividly showed me why Missiles are the weapon of choice for starship combat at the mid-tech levels of Traveller.

Computing Power

Many people criticize the assumptions Traveller made when it came to computers. Marc Miller and company missed with their prediction of the computer revolution. For myself I tend to ignore the inconsistencies with our reality and try to play the game. In the case of starship combat, I think the problems are not as dire as some make them out to be. Instead, I try to play the game using the rules as written to see what the designers were trying to communicate.

In Mayday, like Book 2, computers are actually a key part of ship-to-ship combat. This is because Traveller computers are limited. For example, a Model/1 computer has a “CPU” of 2 and “Storage” of 4. What does this mean? It means that the ship can “load” programs taking up space equal to “Storage” and can “run” programs in a given phase of the turn with sizes the “CPU” can support.

Take a typical Free Trader with a Model/1 computer. According to the ship description, the available computer programs (and size) are:

  • Target 1, Launch 1, Gunner Interact 1, Auto/Evade 1, Return Fire 1, Anti-Missle 2, Maneuver 1,  Jump-1 1, Navigation 1.

No more than 6 “spaces” of programs can be loaded. As you can hopefully see, not all the programs can be “loaded” at once. Thus, the crew must make a decision.

  • Target is needed to shoot, unless one wants a -4 DM for “manual control”
  • Maneuver is needed to change course/speed.
  • Launch is needed to fire missiles…or a small craft
  • Gunner Interact allows characters to use their Gunnery skill (one of the few connections between Mayday and the Traveller RPG)
  • Auto/Evade makes you harder to hit, but cannot be run with the Maneuver program
  • Return Fire must be used with Target and allows ships to fire at ships/craft that fired at them first
  • Anti-Missile is used for point defense against impacting missiles
  • Jump is needed to activate the FTL (hyperspace) drive…useful to escape
  • Navigation is needed to compute the hyperspace jump

There are other programs available, such as Predict (positive DM to hit), Selective (ability to target specific systems), and Maneuver/Evade (harder to hit but less maneuver capability).

Making sure you have the right program available at the right time is crucial for combat in Mayday. For many years I ignored this section and just played with the Simplified Computer Rule:

Any activity may be performed, without regard  to computer program requirements. The size of the ship’s computer is used as an attack DM for lasers (computer model 1 gives a DM of +1) and as a defense DM when attacked by lasers. DMs for range, sand effects, manual control, and anti-missile fire still apply, but no others do. This simplified rule allows concentration on movement and basic combat. 6. Computer Programming (p. 9)

Simply Complex

Mayday is what I call a “simply complex” game. The rules are simple, from easy vector movement to a straight-forward combat system. Taking into account the computer rules really does make this game “intriguing” like the rulebook claims, and that makes it complex in that the choices one makes are relevant, interesting, and impactful. I also appreciate the insight this simple game gives me into the universe building that Marc Miller and friends started 40 years ago.

Mayday is currently rated 5.8 on BoardGameGeek. I personally rated it a 7 (Good – Usually willing to play) back in 2008 when I think I was updating my collection. Given my more recent appreciation for the game, I think it deserves a rating increase to 7.5.