Cepheus Deluxe (Stellagama Publishing, 2021) – The new heroic #TravellerRPG

Cepheus Deluxe is the latest iteration of the Cepheus Engine roleplaying game rules for 2d6 science fiction adventures. These new rules are the latest refinement of a game system that traces its heritage back to Marc Miller’s Classic Traveller RPG from Game Designers’ Workshop in 1977. Cepheus Deluxe increases player agency in generation of larger-than-life characters and delivers more cinematic action but by doing so moves the Cepheus Engine away from play evocative of “ordinary” adventurers and closer to heroic science fiction characters and action taken from today’s pop culture.


Traveller, by Marc Miller and published by Game Designers’ Workshop in the late 1970s, was my first roleplaying game (RPG). I have played Traveller continuously since 1979—over 40 years. Through those years I played several different versions of Traveller, and missed many others too. In the mid-2000s, Mongoose Publishing licensed Traveller and published Mongoose Traveller, 1st Edition using an Open Game License (OGL). However, when Mongoose released a second edition in the mid-2010s, the license rules changed, and (in my opinion) not for the betterment of the Traveller community. Fortunately, there were enterprising publishers, led by Jason “Flynn” Kemp at Samardan Press who took the Traveller System Reference Document (SRD) and OGL and released a “generic” version of the rules called Cepheus Engine. The Cepheus Engine rules are the Traveller RPG rules sans the Third Imperium setting which both Mongoose Publishing and Far Future Enterprises (Marc Miller) designate as IP. The latest version of the Cepheus Engine rules are known as Cepheus Deluxe. written by a team led by Omer Golan-Joel from Stellagama Publishing.

Old is New or New is Old?

Cepheus Deluxe is simultaneously a spiritual successor to the original Traveller RPG (now commonly known as Classic Traveller) as well as a distinctly different game. The major differences (evolution?) in the rules systems are related to the core mechanic, character generation (chargen), and more cinematic combat. Some of the “new” rules were seen in previous versions of Traveller, such as Mongoose Traveller 1st and 2nd Editions, as well as earlier or variant versions of Cepheus Engine. However, their assembly in Cepheus Engine delivers a more “heroic” game.

Core Mechanic – 2d6…plus

The Classic Traveller core mechanic—roll 2d6 8+ for success—generally remains in Cepheus Deluxe but with more modifiers and task difficulty. Whereas in Classic Traveller the only die modifier (DM) to a skill check was from skill levels, in Cepheus Deluxe you have DMs for characteristics and skill levels. along with a host of other environmental and situational modifiers. These extra modifiers appeared in various Traveller and Cepheus Engine versions before now.

The major new addition to character generation in Cepheus Deluxe that heavily influences task throws is Traits. “Traits are unique features of competent and driven characters…each character typically has one Trait…” (p. 41). When using a Trait, players use Advantage, which means one rolls 3d6 and chooses the best two when making a task roll.

Although it is an optional rule, if used Hero Points can dramatically shift the style of play in Cepheus Deluxe. This rule is expressly designed to enable play of “larger-than-life science fiction heroes” (p. 12). Players start each session with 2 Hero Points and share a common pool of points equal to the number of players present. Each time a task throw results in an Effect (difference of roll and target number) of +6 or greater, the individual Hero Pool increases by 1. Each time a task throw has an Effect of -6 or greater, the group Hero Pool increases by 1. Hero Points are used to:

  • Reroll a single die throw
  • Force the Referee to reroll a non-player character die roll
  • Reroll a throw on Trauma Surgery.

It’s MY Character

One of the greatest features (not a bug) of Classic Traveller has always been character generation (chargen). In Classic Traveller, chargen is quite literally a game with lots of wristage; throw to generate stats, throw to enter careers, throw for skill during a term, throw for promotion, throw for survival, throw to reenlist, and throw when mustering out. Cepheus Deluxe attempts to keep the core lifepath development system of Traveller but updates it by giving the players a bit more agency while calling on less wristage. During chargen in Cepheus Deluxe players will:

  • Roll for characteristics but assign them as desired (long an optional rule)
  • Choose a Homeworld and associated skills (adopted from previous versions)
  • Select a career; no enlistment rolls
  • Pick your own skills during a term; no rolling on tables
    • Optionally, one can roll 1d6 for the number of years in a term vice using the “standard” 4-year
  • Promotions automatically occur in certain terms (subject to modification by Career Events)
  • During a term, one rolls on a Life Events Table and, if necessary, the Injury Table
  • Roll for aging effects at end of Term 4 (tied to terms, not a specific age)
  • Roll for Mustering Out Benefits, but a roll can be exchanged for a promotion
  • Select one Trait for every two terms served (rounded up)

Chargen in Cepheus Deluxe includes optional rules for switching careers. There is another optional rule called “Iron Man!” where one treats any injury as player death—a call-back to Classic Traveller and its famous “you can die in character generation.”

Another major change in Cepheus Deluxe during chargen is the calculation of two new character stats: Stamina and Lifeblood. These stats are used in combat. Stamina, representing “toughness,” is the sum of the player character’s (PC) Endurance characteristic plus Athletics skill. Lifeblood, or “resistance to injury,” is equal to twice their Stamina.

Action for Heroes

Classic Traveller, indeed most version of Traveller or Cepheus Engine, can be very deadly for player characters—after all, the combat system was developed with wargame designer Frank Chadwick! To illustrate both the similarities and differences let’s look at a combat situation. From Classic Traveller we will use the sample character Captain Jamison from pages 24-25 aboard his Type A merchant. Little does he know, pirate captain “Mad Jackie” Botrel from the combat example in Cepheus Deluxe page 93 has snuck aboard and is trying to take over his ship!

Early RPGs were just skirmish wargames, right? (Courtesy @licensedtodill)

Both Jamison and Jackie are waiting to go thru a door when it opens and both see one another. While both are surprised neither has “surprise” by the rules. Since Classic Traveller does not use Initiative rules like those found in Cepheus Deluxe, we will invoke the Cepheus Deluxe optional rule for Simultaneous Combat. As both characters are already at short range Jamison’s “move” is to draw his cutlass followed by an attack. At the same time, Jackie will charge and use her internal cyberblade to attack. So begins this Melee Combat:

  • Jamison must roll an 8+ to hit and has a DM+1 from his Cutlass-1 skill, a DM-2 for the Synthsilk (Mesh?) armor that Jackie is wearing, and a further DM+2 for short range making his roll 2d6+1.
  • Jackie charges into close range and must roll Melee Combat/STR 8+ with a DM+2 from the charge. Her strength of 6 grants no modifiers but her Melee Combat-3 skill gives her a DM+3. Usually armor reduces hits but since Jamison uses an older rules set without armor protection detailed, we invoke the optional rule Armor as a Penalty to Hit and give Jackie a further DM-1 for the Cloth Armor Jamison is wearing. Total DM is +5. Because she is using her Internal Cybernetic Blade, she can invoke her Signature Weapon Trait and roll 3d6 and use the best two die.
  • Jamison rolls a 7 which after DM is an 8—hit!
  • Jackie rolls 3-4-4 of which she uses 4-4 (8) and DM+5 for a modified roll of 13; hit with Effect +5.
  • Jamison’s cutlass is 2d6+4 damage; average rolls give it 11 wound points.
  • Jackie’s Internal Blade is 2d6; average 7 points plus the Effect+5 for 12 wound points.
  • The wounds to Jamison are randomly determined to hit his Endurance (9) first. This reduces his Endurance to 0 with three remaining points spread against Strength (-1) and Dexterity (-2);Jamison falls unconscious.
  • The 11 wound points against Jackie are reduced by 8 from her Synthsilk Armor. The remaining 3 points are applied to her Stamina (Endurance + Athletics = 8) which leaves her standing with “a mere flesh wound.”

Of note, in Cepheus Deluxe, once Stamina is exhausted wounds are then applied to Lifeblood (Stamina x2). Game effects from the loss of Lifeblood include:

  • When Lifeblood > half rating the PC has a Minor Wound and a DM-1 to all actions
  • When Lifeblood < half rating the PC has a Serious Wound with a DM-2 to all actions and must roll to remain conscious
  • When Lifeblood reaches zero the PC is Mortally Wounded and will die within an our unless they undergo Trauma Surgery.

Using the assumption that a character has average physical characteristics of 7, and assuming they have at least Combat and Athletics skills of 1 (“Employable”), in Cepheus Deluxe it likely takes something on the order of three or four hits—or more when wearing armor—to incapacitate a PC. While one certainly doesn’t want to hang around in a sustained firefight in Cepheus Deluxe, the combat potential of a PC is reduced at a cinematically slower pace than many previous versions of Traveller or Cepheus Engine (and certainly much slower than Classic Traveller).

“Holding Out for a Hero”

In Classic Traveller and so many later versions of Traveller and Cepheus Engine, character generation delivered what I call “everyday” characters using a somewhat random system. While one may start chargen with a basic character concept, the system sometimes (often times?) delivered a far different result. For myself, I enjoyed taking these “everyday” characters and trying to build a story and adventures around them. The increased player agency in Cepheus Deluxe challenges my basic assumptions at the start of chargen. The increased player agency in chargen from Cepheus Deluxe empowers players to take a character concept and flesh it out. While there is still some randomness and uncertainty it is limited and can challenge, but not derail, the making of a character. The ability to select your own skills and then acquire Traits with their powerful Advantage roll makes characters in Cepheus Engine more heroic than everyday. In some roleplaying games it is a conceit going into the game that players are “heroes” or extraordinary PCs. This was certainly not the conceit in Classic Traveller, but it is more popular in other systems. For example, The Expanse Roleplaying Game (Green Ronin, 2019) in “Character Creation, Step 2: Abilities” explicitly defines characters as “extraordinary” as compared to non-adventurous ordinary people:

AGE System characters are defined by nine abilities. They’re scored on a numeric scale from -2 (quite poor) to 4 (truly outstanding). A score of 1 is considered average for Player Characters and other extraordinary people. 0 is average for everyday individuals, the sort of folks who avoid having adventures.

The Expanse Roleplaying Game, p. 25

The core mechanic in Cepheus Deluxe, building upon character generation and taken in combination with more cinematic action and the optional Hero Points rules, certainly enables play of “larger-than-life science fiction heroes.” I am very likely in the minority here, but my preferred style of RPG play is decidedly “ordinary” vice “extraordinary.” Looking back over various rule sets in my collection I often enjoy taking an ordinary character and throwing them into extraordinary adventures:

  • Classic Traveller (GDW, 1977): “Everyday” characters usually living on the edge.
  • Behind Enemy Lines (FASA, 1982): Everyday GI Joe in combat.
  • Star Trek (FASA, 1982): While Star Fleet officers are highly trained, they often needed plenty of luck too.
  • James Bond 007 (Victory Games, 1983): Anybody can be spy, but a 00 has the best gadgets.
  • Paranoia (West End Games, 1984): Six decidedly average (if not slightly abnormal) clones were never enough.
  • Twilight: 2000 (GDW, 1984): In how many games can one stat themselves out?
  • Traveller: 2300 aka 2300 AD (GDW, 1986): Hard sci-fi Traveller in an unforgiving universe.
  • Battlestar Galactica (Margaret Weiss, 2007): Humans on the run from frakking Cylons!
  • Mongoose Traveller (Mongoose Publishing, 2008): Classic Traveller with an OGL
  • Serenity/Firefly (Margaret Weiss 2008/2014): “Find a crew, find a job, keep flying.”
  • Diaspora (Fate 3.0) (VSCA Publishing, 2009): Traveller using FATE 3.0 rules
  • Star Wars Roleplaying: Edge of the Empire (Fantasy Flight Games, 2013): “May the Force be with you”…but on low power.
  • Star Wars Roleplaying: Age of Rebellion (Fantasy Flight Games, 2014): Think Rogue One.
  • Cepheus Engine/The Clement Sector (Gypsy Knights Games (now Independence Games), 2014): Small-ship Classic Traveller alternate universe.
  • Cepheus Engine/Orbital 2100 (Zozer Games, 2016): Hard sublight sci-fi.
  • Cepheus Engine/Hostile (Zozer Games, 2017): “In space nobody can hear you scream.”
  • I hear there is a Cowboy Bebop RPG in development; looking forward to Cowboys just trying to catch a bounty to buy birthday presents for their kids and not be hungry for noodles like Spike.

In many ways I should not be surprised by the Cepheus Deluxe authors moving the rules towards a more heroic version of science fiction roleplaying. Thanks to corporate overlords like Marvel, superheroes seem everywhere. If you look at the RPG systems I enjoy, you will notice that most of those games are not superhero or high magic or space fantasy. My sources of inspiration for science fiction roleplaying overlap to some degree with those listed in Cepheus Deluxe, with a notable difference being my lack interest from computer games.

Does all this mean I dislike Cepheus Deluxe? Hardly. Rules like Hero Points are optional, and as you can see with the example above there is a high degree of backwards compatibility baked into the system. There are more than a few rules, like chases in combat or the entire Social Encounter chapter that are vey nice. More likely than not, I’ll probably use a character generation system tailored to a setting I prefer to play in like The Clement Sector or Orbital 2100 or Hostile but use the rules for Cepheus Deluxe in adventure play.

At the end of the day, I will certainly try to play Cepheus Deluxe. I am not sure I will add Hero Points. I feel that the RockyMountainNavy Boys would like the more heroic play. For myself…I just want ordinary PCs in extraordinary adventures. I’ll hold out for my heroes!


Postscript: There is one further discussion I feel need be mentiones and that is the inevitable comparisons of Cepheus Deluxe to Mongoose Traveller 2nd Ed. Yes, the two game systems are very similar, dare I say almost identical. The similarities are not only in the rules but in the layout of the rule books and even similar artwork. I see two major differences: price and licensing. For price one just cannot beat Cepheus Deluxe which at $9.99 for pdf and $16.99 for pdf+ B&W softcover is a real bargain. Mongoose Traveller will set you back $30 for the pdf alone, the most recent version which is an update to the 2nd Edition rules (although called an “update” Mongoose wants you to buy a whole new rulebook). Secondly, there is the licensing issues I alluded to before. Suffice it to say the Cepheus Engine community is open and very welcoming, whereas the MgT community must live with a publishing overlord that takes seizes individual IP just because you might happen to play in “their” sandbox.


Feature image courtesy Ian Stead

#SundaySummary – Missed Charlie but going from Bulge to D-Day with a deluxe serving of #CepheusEngine (@ADragoons @HBuchanan2 #wargame #ConSim #boardgame #TravellerRPG)

For the few wargamers out there that care, the 2020 Charles S. Roberts Awards (aka “The Charlies”) were awarded this week. The link is to the website that is yet to be updated; the awards announcement was via Dan Picaldi’s No Enemies Here YouTube Channel. It’s no secret that I am not impressed with the Charlies even in a year when I was nominated in a category. I’d wish all “better luck next year” but with the award process so unknown I honestly don’t care if there is a next year. For more reactions make sure you check out Brant and the gang over at the Mentioned in Dispatches podcast from Armchair Dragoons.

Wargames

New Arrival: Battle of the Bulge (Avalon Hill, 1965). Picked up through a local auction for $5. Box is in poor condition (every corner blown) but the contents are generally good.

On the Table: D-Day at Omaha Beach (Decision Games 4th Edition, 2019). Working my way through this solitaire system that at first looks a bit formidable but once you get it to the table and step through a few rounds it makes easy sense.

ConSim

Harold Buchanan hosted SDHistCon 2021 over this holiday weekend. I was unable to attend any of the events as I had family commitments or work. I’ll have to check out the various recordings later. For those same reasons I missed out on Historicon too. [Late edit…this weekend was the Compass Games Expo too.]

Boardgames

Office-al” Game: Iron Curtain (Ultra Pro/Jolly Roger Games, 2017). Not necessarily a solo game but having to walk away between hands helps one to forget what is there making “two-handed solitaire” doable. Small game also got some big attention from office mates.

Roleplaying Games

New Arrival: Cepheus Deluxe by Omer Golan Joel and team at Stellagama Publishing. Omer’s latest version of Cepheus Engine looks to take the Classic Traveller RPG into the 21st century with updated mechanics and more player agency while retaining the essence of the 2d6 Original Science Fiction RPG rules.