#RPGThursday – Searching for My Personal/Tactical #TravellerRPG #Wargame

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 original Traveller

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 surprise
  • Determine initial range
  • Determine escape/avoidance
  • 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.

Mercenary (1978)

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.

Snapshot (1979)

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.

“Frak you!”

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

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.

Striker (1981)

Striker (1981)

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.

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.

RockyMountainNavy, Dec 2020

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.

JTAS 9

JTAS Journey

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.”

Feature image courtesy Ian Stead

#RPG Rulings – Understanding Gravity in #TheExpanse Using #CepheusEngine #TravellerRPG

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).

Courtesy pintrest.com

Rules of Gravity

I don’t presently own The Expanse Roleplaying Game from Green Ronin so I do not know the details of how they handle gravity in that setting. However, I am a long-time Traveller RPG player. These days I enjoy the modern incarnation of the Original 2d6 Science Fiction Roleplaying Game by using the Cepheus Engine rules set.

For my exploration of of gravity and The Expanse, I focused on five RPG rule sets or settings:

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 Sector defines 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)
Courtesy geekwire.com

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:

Classic Traveller Module 2: Beltstrike, p. 11

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.

Courtesy Syfy.com

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.

Gel-y Juice

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.

Orbital 2100, Chapter 5: Spacecraft Design, p. 37

For The Clement Sector setting, ship design is found in the Anderson & Felix Guide to Naval Architecture. Included in A&F is a module for designing Pre-Gravitic Drive Spacecraft. Here we actually get rules for continuous micro-gravity exposure as well as alternate methods of producing artificial gravity, both of which are also featured in The Expanse:

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:

Thrust

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.

Centrifugal Rotation

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
Courtesy syfy.com

Expanse-ive Characters

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’ll point out here that the Belter career in the CESRD is perfectly adequate for generating a Belter character. However, if you have access to the Cepheus Engine supplement Uranium Fever: Asteroid Mining Rules for the Cepheus Engine from Stellagama Publishing (2018) the Independent Belter, Company Belter, and Planetary Miner careers are well worth the small cost of the product.

For Mars – Hu-ah!

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.

Acceleration

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?)

“Now you just walk around like you’re in pumps.”

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….

Courtesy Moon Toad Publishing

#RPG Thursday – The “History” of Twilight 2000 (GDW, 1984) -or- What plausible are YOU looking for?

Twilight: 2000 is one of my oldest, most beloved roleplaying systems in my collection. I still have my original boxed First Edition (1984). I also bought both the complete collections for Twilight: 2000 v1 and Twilight: 2000 v2 on the CD-ROM several years ago from Far Future Enterprises. I took a look at Twilight: 2013 or what some refer to as Twilight: 2000 v3 using the Reflex System in the late 2010’s but didn’t buy into it. Most recently I considered the Free League Kickstarter campaign for a new Twilight: 2000 but didn’t buy into it. What I love about Twilight: 2000 (T2K) is that it is a modern military roleplaying game.

In the past few days I came across this video from the Complex Game Apologist on YouTube and watched.

Now, generally I like CGA mostly because he talks about the Traveller RPG. I say ‘generally’ because he focuses more on the recent versions of Traveller (especially Mongoose Traveller 2.0). I don’t always agree with him but I often give him the benefit of the doubt.

Not this time.

I’m going to try to ignore the obvious problem of having a self-named millennial (note the right spelling) in a BLM t-shirt tell me about what it was like growing up in the Cold War. Instead I will focus on what I think CGA misses – Twilight: 2000 is a ‘plausible’ concept for a modern military roleplaying game; the timeline serves the purpose of getting to that concept, any historical accuracy or ‘plausibility’ of the setting is secondary to the need to get at that core concept.

The core of CGA’s argument is found starting at the 19:57 minute mark in this 27:48 minute video. Here is my transcription of his words:

The game is married to this version of a four year war. We can see the troops really entrench, bond with each other. We can see see millions of Americans kidnapped or “drafted” [air quotes used] off the street to fight in Central Europe. And to my eyes in the year 2020 it feels like it wants that more than it wants to be plausible. At least I need a reason why the war goes on that long.

In 2006 Far Future Enterprises published for free online the Player’s Guide to Twilight: 2000 (version 1.0). I think an extensive quote from that document is key to understanding what the designer’s wanted the game to be.

Serious role-playing games are built around drama, and there is no situation more dramatic than that of a soldier in wartime, so you might think the military is a natural setting for role- playing. However, RPGs work best in anarchic situations— where the player characters are their own bosses— and, in the army, discipline and coordinated group action are the keys to success. To get around this, the most successful military RPGs have settings where small groups can act with a large degree of autonomy, on commando raids, during guerilla warfare, or (most popular of all) after civilization has broken down due to holocaust or invasion.

What I think CGA misses is that the setting of T2K is actually very similar to many classic Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. The initial T2K setting in effect is medieval Europe except instead of wandering knights you have a band of US military personnel trying to escape home. This is where I think CGA runs off the rails in his video. CGA clearly wants a Twilight: 2000 that he defines as “more plausible.” so he redefines the alternate history scenario. What I think CGA misses is that the T2K setting is NOT designed to be ‘realistic’, it simply serves as a vehicle to get us to a dramatic modern military setting for a roleplaying game.

Here is the concept for T2K as presented in the Players Guide:

Five years ago, the nations of the world began their war for global supremacy.

Three years ago, a massive nuclear exchange failed to give any side the decisive advantage they sought.

One year ago, the US Fifth Infantry Division launched a drive into enemy-held Poland, part of an offensive to knock the Soviets back to their homeland.

It failed. Now the Red Diamond is deep in enemy territory, reduced to small units without support, supply, or reinforcement. The war for Europe has turned into the war for survival.

Now what?

GDW presents a new concept in role-playing. World War III began five years ago. It’s still going on, but that’s the least of your problems. A few days ago, you were soldiers in the U.S. 5th Division. Now you’re just fighting to survive while the world falls apart around you.

Welcome to 2000 AD. Your equipment was brand new in 1995; now it’s wearing out. Gasoline is rare, so your vehicles run on alcohol you distill yourself. And 5th Division’s cavalry—when there was a 5th Division—rode horses. There’s not much government left in central Europe, just warlords, marauders, and free cities. Even the major powers are collapsing; some units, even whole divisions, are refusing orders and heading home.

Your division is gone, and you’re hundreds of kilometers inside enemy territory; fortunately, the Soviets aren’t in much better shape than you are.

Your job is to stay alive, find enough fuel and spare parts to keep moving, get home (wherever that is), and maybe even strike at the enemy.

The real trick in designing a role-playing game is to produce detailed, accurate effects with simple systems. That takes inspiration and a lot of work, and that’s what we did. Twilight: 2000’s comprehensive rules cover combat, skills, survival, encounters, and more with easy-to- use and flexible but well-defined systems.

I actually find it a bit sad that CGA is so hard-over on the need to redefine the alternate history in order to enjoy this game. Instead of embracing a plausible setting concept he seems intent on redefining the setting history to make that timeline ‘plausible’ to him. I feel that, in the end, his political blinders will prevent him from enjoying any version of Twilight: 2000. It’s not the setting that is the plausible focus but the potential drama derived from the concept of modern military roleplaying that makes Twilight: 2000 enjoyable. That is what made Twilight: 2000 enjoyable in 1984 and that is what can make Twilight: 2000 enjoyable in 2020.

Cold War Boomer, out!

#TravellerRPG #retro #wargame – Remember the time we were invaded? Invasion: Earth – The Final Battle of the Solomani Rim War (Game Designers’ Workshop, 1981)

IN 1979 MY LIFE CHANGED FOREVER WHEN I STARTED WARGAMING. At the same time, I discovered role playing games (RPGs), but my RPG of choice was NOT Dungeons & Dragons, but rather Traveller in the classic Little Black Books. Game Designers’ Workshop was the publisher of Traveller and many other wargames. Alas, for some reason (price?) I saw several Traveller-related wargames but didn’t buy them. Over the past 40 years I have tried to build out my collection and for a while had to satisfy myself with only PnP versions on the The Classic Traveller CDROM from farfuture.net.

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Classic Traveller in the Little Black Books. My copies are much more used….

GDW published seven boardgames for Classic Traveller. Over the years, two of those games, Fifth Frontier War and Invasion: Earth achieved ‘grail game’ status to me. I am lucky to own physical (boxed) copies of Imperium, Mayday, Snapshot, and Fifth Frontier War. This week I added the other grail game to my collection, Invasion: Earth – The Final Battle of the Solomani Rim War (Game Designers’ Workshop, 1981). The back of the box further adds to the title with, “A complete Adventure Game of science fiction from Game Designers’ Workshop.”

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Going through the box and rules is a real adventure and nostalgia trip for all the right reasons.

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Even the Comment Card is in there!

Component-wise, Invasion: Earth looks more like today’s print-on-demand products. There is nothing wrong with that; just by today’s standards it is not a ‘top line’ product like it was ‘in the day.’

Mechanically, the game is rated as Intermediate complexity. Maybe so in terms of 1981 games, but with the rules taking a paltry 12 double-column pages, one of which is the cover, another front matter, a third the Order of Battle, and a fourth the back cover with the Unit Identification Chart. The other 8 pages of actual rules are actually not very complex mechanically. Noted wargame designer Frank Chadwick is credited as a co-designer. I definitely see shades of Chadwick’s design here. It’s not his finest work, but by no means is Invasion: Earth a stinker either.

What I really love is what the other four pages of the rule book includes. Two pages are background on The Solomani Rim War. This is where lead designer Marc Miller, the father of Traveller, makes his major contribution. I think this game was the first place where the ‘details’ of the Solomani Rim War were discussed (Supplement 10: The Solomani Rim was not published until 1982). Like many wargames used to do, this ‘history’ helps bring the theme to life and makes playing the game seem to really mean something far beyond being an exercise in pushing chits across a map.

The last two pages are devoted to Traveller and helping Game Master’s fit the game into their adventures. There are seeds for Casual Adventures, Continuing Campaigns, and using the game as a Campaign Background. Then there is a section titled, “Other Uses.

It’s pure grognard heaven.

The Other Uses section explains how to use the rules from Invasion: Earth as the foundation for other planetary invasion campaigns. Rules are provided for other forms of mechanized forces or even foot soldiers beyond the default Grav Vehicles in this game. With these rules I can do what many Traveller players love; tinker with world-building (or in this case, wargame-design) as ‘Systems Engineers.’*

So how does it play? Well, does it really matter? I personally don’t like the percentage Casualty Markers and see them as clumsy. I wonder what a modern design approach could look like. Then again, I don’t. Invasion: Earth is a snapshot in time that even today, nearly 40 years later, should be savored in its original format. I play, and enjoy it, more for the nostalgia – and definitely for the adventure.

Life is good.


* In Marc Miller’s Traveller, commonly referred to as Traveller 4, Marc Miller discussed different types of Traveller players. One set he referred to as ‘Systems Engineers’ – those who want to “create custom equipment or information.”

 

MayDay – #TravellerRPG version 5.10 coming to Kickstarter

I STILL remember the day back in late 1979 I discovered three Little Black Books (LBB). Since then, I have been a (mostly) loyal Traveller RPG player. The game has gone through many versions from the first (now Classic) Traveller with the latest from original creator Marc Miller called Traveller 5 (T5).

T5 is an interesting beast. Funded through Kickstarter in 2012, the game eventually delivered a beta disk, softcopy, hardcopy, and a revised version 5.09 via softcopy again in 2015. Many people were disappointed in T5.09. Personally, I found it unplayable as a game but a great toolkit for setting creation and worldbuilding. I was not as negative as some and used it to support Mongoose Traveller First Edition and now Cepheus Engine after the Great Mongoose Traveller Debacle.

Marc Miller sent an update to T5 backers this week announcing T5.10. Three Big Black Books (BBB) of about 800 pages of content.

IMG_0232If I am reading the announcement correctly, as an original T5 Kickstarter backer I am going to get an electronic version of T5.10 automatically. If I want to get the physical books for T5.10 I need to back the Kickstarter. The three Big Black Books are going set one back $100. That’s a bit of change….

IMG_0231I’m torn. Marc says the plan is to relase the electronic version in July-August just before physical copies are sent. This means I am really taking that Kickstarter risk – buying the new game relatively sight-unseen.

Then there is the question about the original Kickstarter and whether it’s really finished:

By popular demand, we have committed to producing the Traveller5 Player’s Book: a handy digest-size rules reference tailored for use by Players but without the (primarily) Referee’s rules. We expect to produce a printed version in Spring 2013, but every Backer who orders a Book will receive a link to an Ebook version when it is complete. (T5 Kickstarter Campaign)

It’s 2019 and there has been no Player’s Book. Nor is it mentioned in the new Kickstarter. Spider-sense is tingling….

The Traveller fan boy in me wants to jump in; the more logical side (heavily influenced by Mrs. RMN who has, politely and without nagging, asked me to control my hobby gaming spending) says to be careful – the trons version should be enough. If T5.10 is not easily playable like T5.09 then $100 is a really expensive toolkit. But 800 pages of trons is really tough to read…and I really like imagining the slipcase on my bookshelf and caressing those BBBs in my hands.

I also am in some ways willing to give Marc a pass on the Player’s Book. The sooner T5.09 is put behind the better. Better yet, think of T5.10 as the Player’s Book…and more.

I hope that’s not just wishful thinking.

To be honest, in the past year I have barely touched any RPGs. I went through a very strong hobby boardgame and wargame phase in 2018 and in 2019 I have dialed it back to mostly wargames with a smattering of family boardgames. I am dedicated to playing more games already in my collection and resisting the Cult of the New (CotN) or Fear of Missing Out (FoMO).

Yeah…right. Who am I kidding?

Hey Marc, take my money!