#Wargame Wednesday – Searching for My Strategic #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 combat systems from the Classic Traveller-era (1977-1981).

The Traveller Combat System

Along this voyage of (re)discovery I came to the realization that there is no one single “Traveller Combat System.” Between 1977 and 1981 Game Designers’ Workshop (GDW) gave us EIGHT (8) different ground combat systems “For Use with TRAVELLER.” Broadly speaking, I see the eight systems divided into two broad categories; Strategic and Personal/Tactical. The eight systems, many found within their own games, are:

  • Imperium, Classic Traveller Game 0, 1977 (Strategic)
  • Traveller Combat System, found in Classic Traveller Book 1: Characters and Combat, 1977 (Personal)
  • Mercenary, found in Classic Traveller Book 4: Mercenary, 1978 (Tactical?)
  • Snapshot, Classic Traveller Game 2, 1979 (Personal)
  • Azhanti High Lightning, Classic Traveller Game 3, 1980 (Personal)
  • Fifth Frontier War, Classic Traveller Game 4, 1981 (Strategic)
  • Invasion Earth, Classic Traveller Game 6, 1981 (Strategic)
  • Striker, Classic Traveller Game 7, 1981 (Tactical)

[Of note, Dark Nebula, Classic Traveller Game 5 (1980) is basically a reskinned Imperium and I don’t treat it as a separate game system.]

In this post I’m going to look at the Strategic combat systems for the Traveller roleplaying game. Let us begin by going back to the beginnings of the RPG hobby in the mid-1970’s and a little corner of Indiana with a group calling themselves Game Designers’ Workshop (and pay attention to where the apostrophe is placed).

Strategic Traveller Wargames

Imperium – Empires in Conflict: Worlds in Balance (1977)

Imperium (GDW 1990 Edition)

Imperium is known as Classic Traveller Game 0. The number reflects the fact the design predates release of the Traveller RPG system. As author Shannon Applecline tells us in Designers and Dragons: The ’70s

Meanwhile, GDW was still playing with science-fiction designs. In 1975 and 1976 they worked on the prototype of a wargame called Imperium (1977). They finally published it in 1977 in a very different form, but in its original incarnation Imperium imagined a war between humans and many alien races, among them the lion-like Aslan, the bee-like Hivers, the dog-like Vargr and the mercenary Dorsai. Imperium also provided rules for individual characters — the sons of the leaders of the war — who progressed through individual careers and provided bonuses to armies based on the careers selected.

Both the alien races and the careers would be incorporated into GDW’s second and most notable RPG: Traveller.

Shannon Applecline, Designers and Dragons: The 70’s, Evil Hat Productions, 2014, p. 158

Here is how Imperium introduces itself:

lmperium is a science-fiction game about interstellar war. Several hundred years from now, Terra reaches the stars, only to find that they are already owned by a vast, sprawling interstellar empire: the Ziru Sirka (the Grand Empire of Stars or Imperium). The heavy hand of the lmperium and the expansionism of Earth lead naturally and inexorably to interstellar war. lmperium is a boardgame of that conflict.

Imperium Rule Book, p. 2

Imperium is what I term a grand strategic wargame. The scale of the game is six-month turns and 1/2 parsec (1.67 light years) per hex. If you are a Traveller RPG aficionado, you probably recognize the map scale is different and not the usual 1-parsec per hex. In keeping with the grand strategy design, Imperium includes rules for economics and both space and planetary warfare. The game actually has three distinct combat subsystems; “Space Combat,” “Planetary Surface/Space Interactions,” and “Surface Combat.” In this post I am focusing on the ground warfare aspects of the design found in the rules for “Surface Combat” in the core Rule Book starting on page 8.

If one makes it past the Space Combat and Planetary Surface/Space Interactions phases of an Imperium game turn (representing the deep and close-space battles) then a Surface Combat action may be fought. The combat mechanic here is the very traditional “battleline” where opponents are paired up. There is a very Avalon Hill War at Sea-like vibe to this combat mechanic and given WaS was published in 1975 is it possible the GDW designers took some inspiration?

In Imperium, Surface Combat begins with both players taking their forces and “pairing them off” against each other. If the attacker is unable to pair-off against all the defenders, no planetary assault is possible. If all combatants have been paired, any excess combatants can be doubled or even tripled up against. Optionally, forces not engaged can be “screened” and will not participate in the battle.

[As I reread the Surface Combat rules closely, I realized I had missed an important element over the many years played. I always assumed that only Troops, Planetary Defense Markers, and Outposts participated in Surface Combat. However, ships also participate!]

Paired off Imperium combatants now fight a round of combat by first determining their combat differential and then rolling on the appropriate column of the Surface Combat Results table. Regular troops attacking jump troops are given a round of defensive fire before the jump troops fire back to simulate the lack of heavy firepower jump troops possess (i.e. jump troops are great on offense but poor on defense). Possible combat results are either “No Effect” or “Destroyed/Neutralized.” Surface combat continues in rounds until all committed troops of one side are eliminated.

Surface Combat in Imperium, indeed any combat in Imperium, does not factor in a tech level difference. In the history of the game, the combatants were actually balanced technologically (although they designed ships using different doctrines) until the advent of the Terran battleship which appears in an Optional Rule.

Fifth Frontier War: Battles for the Spinward Marches (1981)

Fifth Frontier War (GDW, 1981) Rule Book

The cover of the rule book for Fifth Frontier War (FFW) carries the tagline “For Use With TRAVELLER” above the title. Here is how the game introduces itself:

Poised just beyond the frontier of the Imperium stand the war fleets of the Zhodani Consulate. Four times in the past five hundred years, they have attacked in campaigns to wrest control of the vital resources and rich worlds of the Spinward Marches from the Third Imperium. Now they strike again, and the Fifth Frontier War begins in earnest.

Fifth Frontier War is a Traveller campaign game portraying the progress of a far-reaching interstellar war and its effects on the many worlds that are its battlefield. The game is playable independently as a tense, fast-moving simulation of interstellar war. Rules cover starship squadrons and space battles, troop units and worlds at war, and the details of long-range interstellar planning. Special rules cover the operation of ship fleets, the use of naval bases, troop carriers, and advanced technological levels. Special charts cover every aspect of combat during the game.

Fifth Frontier War includes a large, four-color map of part of the Spinward Marches, complete with planetary surface boxes detailing the many planets within the area. Three sheets totaling 720 die-cut counters provide starship squadrons, troop units, fleet markers, admirals, and other details essential to the game. The rules booklet details how to play the game, while charts provide reference information. Two dice are included to help generate random numbers for combat.

Fifth Frontier War is playable by itself, but familiarity with the Traveller science-fiction role-playing system will aid in understanding the background history. The game may be played in 4 to 6 hours, and can usually be finished in an evening of play. It is designed for two players, but up to four may be involved if desired.

Fifth Frontier War, Rule Book, p. 2

The line, “…familiarity with the Traveller science-fiction role-playing system will aid in understanding the background history” is very insightful. FFW is set in the Traveller universe, but it is not an essential part of the roleplaying game. Like Imperium before it, FFW is another grand strategic wargame. This time, however, the setting is more closely tied to the Traveller material.

Leveraging the closer ties to Traveller, the scale in FFW uses several for the roleplaying game’s conventions. Each turn in one week, the same as the time spent in jump space, and each hex is one parsec.

FFW, like Imperium before it, uses several different combat subsystems in play. “Surface Combat” comes after “Space Combat” and “Interface Combat” in the Combat Phase of each turn. “Surface Combat” specifically deals with troops present on a world engaging in combat.

Resolution of surface combat in FFW is again very simple. The combat factor of a unit can be split to attack multiple defenders or they may combine with other units. The total of attacking combat factors is compared to defending combat factors to derive attack odds. Using the Troop Combat Results Table both the attacker rolls 2d6 and cross-references the results. Combat results are applied after all battles are complete. The combat result is expressed as the percentage of the force destroyed with the results applied at the end of the phase.

Technology makes a difference in surface combat in FFW. The combat factor of armored units is doubled in surface combat. Elite units also have their combat factor doubled. (Mercenary units have their strength halved if currently at 50% or more casualties; their heart isn’t in it anymore.) Most importantly, after the combat odds are determined, but before any dice are rolled, the relative tech levels of the force are considered. The difference in tech level becomes a column shift on the Troop Combat Results Table. Of note, the atmosphere of the planet is also a consideration, but appears in the form of a die roll modifier, not a column shift like technology. Just as importantly, the tech level of the force is determined by the lowest tech level unit participating in the combat.

Let’s see how surface combat plays out using the example in the rule book from FFW. It’s a bit long and the numbers may look big but in reality it goes quick once you try it. Pay close attention to how dramatic the column shifts can be from different tech levels fighting each other:

The Zhodani player has landed two tech level 14, full strength 20-factor troop units on a tech level 10 Imperial world having a tech level 15, full strength 5-factor troop unit and a 150-factor defense unit at 20% losses (thus having a current strength of 120). The Zhodani player attacks the Imperial troop unit using 15 factors; the combat odds are 3:1 (15:5) and are shifted one column to the left (to 2:1 ) due to tech level difference (14 -15 = -1 ). The dice roll is 5 and is not modified, as the atmosphere of the world is normal. Thus, 40% losses are inflicted on the Imperial troop unit. The Zhodani player attacks the defense unit using his remaining 25 factors. The combat odds are 1:5 (25:120) and are shifted four columns to the right (to 1.5:1) due to tech level difference (14 – 10 = 4). A 6 is rolled, and the unit takes 20% losses, increasing its total losses to 40%. Losses to the Imperial units are not implemented until the end of the combat. The Imperial player attacks one of the Zhodani units with all 5 of his tech level 15 factors. The combat odds are 1:5 (5:20). He could have used some of the factors from the defense unit to raise the odds, but this would have meant an unfavorable tech level difference due to the defense unit’s lower tech level. The tech level difference is (15 -14 =) 1, which means the attack is resolved on the 1:3 column. The dice roll is 9, and thus the attack has no effect. The Imperial player attacks the other Zhodani unit with the 120 factors of the defense unit. The odds are 5:1 (120:20) and are shifted four columns to the left (to 1:1) due to tech level difference (10 -14 = -4). The dice roll is 7, resulting in 10% losses to the Zhodani unit. Surface combat resolution is now finished for this world, and the combat results are implemented: a 10 casualty marker is stacked under one of the Zhodani units, a 40 casualty marker is stacked under the Imperial troop unit, and the 20 casualty marker for the defense battalions is exchanged for a 40 casualty marker.

Fifth Frontier War, Rule Book, p. 15

Near the end of the rules for FFW the designers give some hints for using this wargame in a Traveller RPG campaign:

ROLE-PLAYING

Role-playing appears to Traveller players to be a simple series of adventures in which situations are presented, dealt with by the players, and resolved. The Traveller referee knows that there is a lot more to running a consistent, interesting Traveller campaign; preparation for each situation is required, contingencies must be foreseen, and background laid out. Fifth Frontier War is intended as a partial solution to the problems of presenting situations to Traveller players.

BASIC CONCEPT

Fifth Frontier War is a detailed adventure game of the progress of the current war between the Imperium and the Zhodani in the Spinward Marches. It progresses on weekly turns with forces representing squadrons of military starships and battalions or more of fighting troops. The game is intended to be played for enjoyment of and by itself. Indeed, in situations where no referee is available, or where only two Traveller players can get together, Fifth Frontier War allows them to play a form of Traveller without a referee.

Ultimately, the Traveller referee will have enough experience with the game and its rules to be able to use it in a Traveller campaign. At that point, Fifth Frontier War can be used to indicate the greater conditions that are happening in the Spinward Marches, often just beyond the knowledge of Traveller adventurers. Players can be idly exploring a world in the Spinward Marches and be suddenly confronted with a major space battle in the skies above them, or encounter major friendly or enemy troop units establishing bases. The point is that they cannot know ahead of time exactly what activity is taking place even one system away, and that activity could be deadly to them.

Fifth Frontier War, Rule Book, p. 19

Invasion: Earth – The Final Battle of the Solomani Rim War (1981)

Invasion: Earth (GDW, 1981)

Invasion: Earth (IE) was released in the same year as FFW but does not carry the “For Use With TRAVELLER” tag across the cover. Maybe this is because Invasion: Earth is a historical game in the Traveller setting, taking place some five years before the default start of the Traveller setting from the Little Black Books.

Once again, I’m going to let the introduction of Invasion: Earth explain itself:

INVASION: EARTH

Invasion: Earth is a two-player game of the assault on Terra by the forces of the Imperium; this battle was the last major campaign of the Solomani Rim War. (A section at the end of the rules gives a brief outline of this war.) One player represents the commander of the lmperial invasion force and controls all lmperial regular, colonial, and mercenary units in the game. The other player represents the commander of the Solomani forces assigned to the defense of Terra and controls all Solomani units in the game.

TRAVELLER

Invasion: Earth is a complete game, playable in itself. It may also be used in several ways to supplement or to provide a background for Traveller campaigns and adventures, as indicated in a section following the rules on the play of the game.

Invasion: Earth, Rule Book, p. 3

Invasion: Earth is a game that shows the strategic-level of warfare, but at a much smaller scale than either Imperium or FFW. One game of Invasion: Earth is a single planetary invasion; one complete round of surface combat at one planet in Imperium or Fifth Frontier War. Each turn in Invasion: Earth is two weeks. Here is how the rules describe surface units:

Troop units are the field formations which, through the use of manpower and firepower, are the ultimate defenders or attackers of a piece of terrain. Due to the high technological levels of the opposing forces, the basic transport vehicle is the anti-gravity vehicle; hence troop units are quite mobile. PD [Planetary Defense] units are collections of energy weapons and missiles capable of engaging naval units bombarding the surface of a world. Each has an intrinsic garrison assigned to it; hence, a PD unit is rated and treated similarly as a troop unit. Most PD units are large, static installations and are immobile, while a few small PD units are mounted on grav vehicles.

Invasion: Earth, Rule Book, p. 3

The combat system used in Invasion: Earth is near-identical to FFW. Adjustments for Armor, Elite, and Mercenary units are still here. Tech level differences shift columns on the Troop Combat Table. The major difference between Invasion: Earth and FFW is the introduction of movement rules.

Like FFW before, the rule book for Invasion: Earth includes extensive ideas for integrating the game with a Traveller RPG campaign. Additionally, though Invasion: Earth focuses on one (“historical”) planetary invasion, the end of the rule book also includes a section for taking the rules and using them for other campaigns, including troops not equipped with grav vehicles (the default in IE).

JTAS Articles

JTAS #9 Cover

A review of the first 24 issues of the Journal of the Traveller’s Aid Society reveals only a small handful of articles related to rules for these strategic wargames. Not surprising, in a way, given JTAS was intended to support the Traveller RPG game and not the wargame line of GDW.

JTAS 1 (1979)

This issue contained the article “Diplomacy in Imperium” which introduced a variant using Emissaries into the campaign. Meh.

JTAS 5 (1980)

This cover article in this issue is “Imperium: Ground Combat Module” by the same Roberto Camino that did the “Diplomacy” variant in Issue 1. The ground system he introduces is something between Imperium and Invasion: Earth with planets depicted on two hemispherical maps. This module is intended to replace the Surface Combat phase of Imperium.

JTAS 9 (1981)

This was a “special” Fifth Frontier War edition with lots of background material for the game (some of which was duplicative of the rule book).

What’s the Best Strategy?

As similar as two of these game are, all three of these strategic Traveller wargames offer very different approaches to the Traveller RPG universe. That said, all three of these games are clearly wargames-first and the integration with the Traveller RPG is difficult at best. This is very much unlike almost every Personal/Tactical combat game that is tightly tied to (even forming) the roleplaying game rules.

Imperium is by far the most abstract of the strategic models and unsurprisingly the easiest to learn and play. It also has no expressed technological aspect. Coming before the publication of Traveller, it is also probably the most difficult to “fit” into a Traveller RPG campaign setting as it uses many elements of the setting but in ways that are not directly relatable to the RPG.

Fifth Frontier War, regardless of the “For Use With TRAVELLER” tagline, is a separate wargame set in the Traveller RPG universe. FFW probably does the second-best job of capturing the technological difference of any Traveller wargame, either Personal/Tactical or Strategic. Although there are extensive notes describing how to use FFW in a Traveller RPG campaign, the truth to the matter is the two systems, though set in the same universe and sharing common foundations, are too different in scale to be combined.

Invasion: Earth is the best wargame/RPG system, either Personal/Tactical or Strategic, to capture the impact of technology on ground warfare in the Traveller universe. Like FFW, however, integrating Invasion: Earth into a Traveller RPG campaign is very challenging due once again to the differences in scale. Invasion: Earth is closer to an RPG than FFW, but fighting two weeks of battles between Regiments or Armies is far above the “personal view” that the Traveller RPG is built on.

Interestingly, even though there are more than few articles that discuss integrating the tactical-scale Striker (GDW, 1981) into Traveller campaign, I find no articles or rules about integrating Striker into Imperium, FFW, or Invasion: Earth. I realize Striker was published near-simultaneous to FFW and Invasion: Earth, but you would think even after the fact somebody might had made an attempt in JTAS. Guess not. Once again, the difference in scale is probably just too much to overcome.


*Interestingly, the Traveller Combat System was never called TCS. Within the Traveller rules system, TCS is the abbreviation for “Trillion Credit Squadron.”

#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.

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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

#Retro #TravellerRPG #Wargame #AAR – Invasion: Earth – The Final Battle of the Solomani Rim War (Game Designers’ Workshop, 1981)

BLUF – Game mechanics are deceptively simple but through play one discovers it’s not necessarily combat that is important but executing an invasion plan that requires proper logistical planning and bringing the right forces to bear at the right time and place versus a stubborn defense that must know when to ‘hide’ and fight another day.

NOW THAT I ACQUIRED A GRAIL WARGAME IN THE TRAVELLER RPG UNIVERSE, it was time to play it. Invasion: Earth – The Final Battle of the Solomani Rim War (GDW, 1981) takes place in the Third Imperium setting of the Classic Traveller RPG. The game depicts the invasion of Earth (Sol) by the Third Imperium in the year 1002 (the 55th or 56th Century compared to today). Interestingly, Invasion: Earth (IE) is a ‘historical’ game in the Traveller RPG line as the invasion takes place just over 100 years in the past of the default setting (years 1105-1107).

Physically, Invasion: Earth is a small game more suited to a folio than a box. The map is small, 16″x21″, which covers not only Sol but also holding boxes for different space locations as well as the terrain key. The game includes 480 counters although half are game markers leaving only 240 pieces for actual combatants. Yes, the counters are small – 1/2″ sized – and challenging to this grognard’s eyes. This is a game where a magnifying glass and tweezers to move stacks is required!

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The rule book is just as small – 16 pages – and I previously talked about what I like about it. Although Invasion: Earth is both a space battle and ground combat game, a scenario will see mostly ground combat. As I played my first game of Invasion: Earth I discovered the game proceeded in noticeable ‘phases’ where the players face different challenges and are forced to make sometimes painful decisions.

Phase I – The Space Battle

The Imperial player starts in the Out-System Box and has to ‘jump’ into the Sol System. The arrival area is known as Deep Space. Since the Solomani ships cannot ‘jump’ the Out-System Box effectively serves as the ‘off-map’ assembly area for the Imperial player. The Solomani player cannot set up in Deep Space but instead is limited to Far Orbit (which includes Luna) and Close Orbit – the only orbit which interfaces with the planet. In Phase I the Imperial player has to push aside the Solomani space forces to get to Close Orbit and land troops on the planet.

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Invasion begins….

The problem is those pesky Solomani ships and boats. All ships and boats (non-FTL capable ships) have three ratings – Attack Factor / Bombardment Factor / Defense Factor. However, using the right ship/boat in the right space combat is important. In combat against starships you use the Attack Factor. Combat against boats and ground units use the Bombardment Factor. Each has its own Combat Resolution Table (CRT) where losses are expressed in ‘hits’ or Defense Factors that must be eliminated. This means the first decision the Imperial player faces is how to divide his force to attack defending ships and boats because each squadron can only attack one or the other. Space Combat continues until one side is eliminated or disengages. Ships that disengage move the the Deep Space box where they go into ‘hiding.’ Additionally, if there are no Imperial ships in Close Orbit, those pesky System Defense Boats (SDB) can hide in the ocean. Hidden units have advantages later during the actual Invasion and Occupation phases of the game.

Phase II – Advance Base

For the Imperial player, movement to/from the Out-System can only happen once a turn. This means to bring reinforcements from the Out-System effectively takes two turns. However, if the Imperial player lands a Base on Luna, it becomes an advanced staging area. The challenge for the Imperial player is balancing a need to invade Sol and consolidate forces on Luna. Sounds easy until you take into account Transport.

Different space units have different transport capacities. Ground units have different strength based on their size. Generally speaking, an army is 5C (500), a corps 1C (100), a division 20, a brigade 10, and a regiment 5. Bases (supply points for the Imperial player) are the equivalent of 1C. Different ships can transport different ground units; an Assault Carrier (AR) can carry 6C, a Battle Squadron (BR) carries 20, and a Cruiser Squadron (CR) carries 5. Each ground unit must be carried by a single naval unit – there is no combining 4x CR to carry that 20-Factor division. So the Imperial player has to figure out the logistics game of what ground unit is carried by what squadron. This challenge is not only present in this Advance Base Phase but throughout the game. It becomes even more challenging after Turn 2 when two of the four AR in the game are withdrawn.

Phase III – Invasion!

The invasion of Sol can take place in parallel with the consolidation of an advance base; indeed, the Imperial player is almost forced to execute these two in tandem given the need to achieve victory in the least amount of time. In Invasion: Earth there is little differentiation between ground units but the few differences there are make a big difference.

When landing, eligible defenders roll on the Surface Bombardment Table to see what percentage of the landing attackers are destroyed. The defender totals their Bombardment Factors and rolls single d6 on the column that is closest to, but not more than, that value. The roll is modified by two qualities of the attacker – Tech Level and unit  type.

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Tech Level (TL) is a key concept in the Traveller RPG setting. The higher the TL the more advanced the unit is. TL is one of the most important factors in combat (more on that later) but in an orbital assault units of a lower TL have a -1 DM to the defenders attack roll, meaning they are likely to suffer MORE casualties. Unit type also plays an important roll. Performing an orbital assault with a unit other than a Jump Troop or Marine is a -3 DM (!). The last thing an attacker from orbit wants to do is land a low-tech, non-Jump or Marine unit against a determined enemy! This means the Imperial player should try to lead the orbital assault with those (few) Jump or Marine troops – assuming they are available and loaded properly on the lead wave.

Phase IV – Occupation

Assuming the Imperial player is able to land troops, in order to win they must control, through occupation, all but 10 Urban hexes on Sol. Control of an Urban hex is through Garrisons. To Garrison a hex it must be either occupied solely by an Imperial unit or within the Zone of Control (ZoC) of an proper Imperial unit and NOT in the ZoC of a Solomani unit. In practice this means the Imperial player will have to slog through many Solomani defenders. To do so will require a thorough understanding of Supply, what makes units different from one another, and Replacements.

Supply for the Solomani player is easy – any Urban or Starport hex is a source of Supply. The Imperial player on the other hand must bring their own supply with them in the form of Bases – that cost 1C to transport – meaning only the (few) AR can deliver them to the surface. Bases also make great targets for the Solomani player. Units that start the turn out of supply may not attack and can defend with half their current value.

At first glance, the ground combat system looks rather like a Lanchester Attrition Model that Trevor Dupuy would be proud of. Combat is a simple odds roll with results expressed in Percentage Loss. The stacking rules allow up to 1000 factors (!!!) in a single hex. So why would one want to play this uninteresting attrition game?

Well, because of the few unit types and Tech Level.

There might not be many different ground units in the game, but the few differences are very important:

  • Army, Corps, and Planetary Defense units ONLY extend a ZoC
  • Armor units have their strength doubled in attack or defense
  • Elite units have their strength doubled (this can stack with the Armor bonus)
  • Tech Level differences are COLUMN SHIFTS on the CRT
  • Mercenaries with over 50% losses have their attack strength halved (they are in it only for the money)
  • Commando units ignore enemy units and ZoC during movement and are always in Supply making them the ultimate infiltrators
  • Guerrilla units are attacked with a +3 DM when hiding.

F17507A9-F876-4B9D-8E4A-5B986D0FD120
An Imperial TL14 Elite GravArmor Division takes on a Solomani TL11 Infantry Corps. 1:5 odds? Not so fast….

In keeping with a core tenet of the Traveller RPG the greater the TL difference the more the hurt! Assume a TL14 Imperial Elite Tank Division (20-14) is attacking a defending TL11 Solomani Infantry Corps (1C-11) as shown above.

  • Imperial attack 20×2 (Armor) x2 (Elite) = 80 vs 100 (1:1.5 SHIFTED UP 3 columns to 2:1) – 8 in 11 chance of 10-70% losses
  • Solomani defend 100 vs 80 (1:1 SHIFTED DOWN 3 columns to 1:3) – 3 in 11 chance of 10-20% losses.

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At the end of each calendar quarter, a special turn is executed. This is where both sides can receive Replacements in the form of Replacement Points (RP).

  • Solomani – Accumulate 1x RP for each ungarrisoned Urban hex on the map (there are 61 Urban hexes at the start)
  • Imperial – RP comes in the form of a Wave of 100 RP.

Each RP can rebuild a single ground unit combat factor. It takes 100 RP for the Imperial player to build a Base. The Imperial player can also use a Wave to replace any three eliminated naval units. The Solomani player can start to rebuild an SDB unit at a Starport for no RP but it will not be completed until the next quarter’s special turn (assuming it was not destroyed by being overrun or bombarded). There are additional rules for Emergency Replacements which can be called upon outside of the special turns but are not as plentiful.

End State – Victory

Victory in Invasion: Earth is not based on playing a set number of turns. Instead, in each end of quarter special turn Victory is checked. The Imperial player always has the option of abandoning the invasion which awards the Solomani player a Major Victory. If not, play continues every quarter until the Solomani have 10 or fewer Urban hexes ungarrisoned by the Imperial player. At this point, the Imperial player is awarded 10 VP. Modifiers are then applied:

  • -1 VP for each quarter of the invasion
  • -1 for each Replacement Wave taken by the Imperial player
  • +1 if all Solomani surface units eliminated
  • +1 if all Solomani naval units eliminated.

The Level of Victory Table is then consulted:

  • VP 7+ > Imperial Decisive Victory
  • VP 4-6 > Imperial Major Victory
  • VP 1-3 > Imperial Marginal Victory
  • VP 0 or -1 > Draw
  • VP -2 or -3 > Solomani Marginal Victory
  • VP -4 or less > Solomani Major Victory

In order to win, the Imperial player must be both quick AND efficient with their resources; making as much as they can with the assets they have on hand. The Solomani player benefits from a long, drawn out war of attrition and hiding some units to prevent their destruction (a Fleet-in-Being?).

In my game, the Imperial player did not achieve the Standard Victory (10 VP) until the fifth quarter of play (-5 VP). The Imperial player also took 3x Wave of RP (-3 VP). Not all Solomani ground forces were eliminated and there was a lone Solomani CR that hid in Deep Space the entire game . This was enough for an Imperial Marginal Victory – and boy did it feel marginal!

AAR – or – After Action Reaction

Invasion: Earth turns out to not be the game I was expecting. Looking at the box and the first pass through the rules thought I saw a somewhat staid game with a very old-fashioned combat model that didn’t look like a vision of the future but rather a rehash of the past. Instead, what IE delivers is a master-class lesson on opposed landings and shows a vision of the future where timeless lessons of amphibious landings are applied to orbital assaults. The rules drive the players to carefully husbanding their resources and allocating forces with thought. Indeed, I had not expected a game that appears this simple to be this deep in the decisions it forces upon players.

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I note that Invasion: Earth was published in 1981, a year before the 1982 Falklands War where the Royal Navy and British ground forces were challenged to figure out how to carefully load troops and logistics on few amphibious ships and execute an amphibious landing far away from their bases. The British also faced a narrow timeline for action being called upon to invade and retake the islands before the winter.* Invasion: Earth and the Falklands War are eerily similar, and even more eery when one considers IE came before the Falklands War. Then again, maybe designers Marc Miller and Frank Chadwick were just expressing age-old, never-changing lessons of amphibious warfare in this paper time machine.

If so they did a very good job.


*For a good modern wargame on the Falklands War that is soloable, I recommend Mrs. Thatchers War from White Dog Games.

#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.”

 

Plotting my #TravellerRPG renaissance (with shout outs to @GKGames, @moontoadpub, @StellagamaPub, & @TravellerNews)

ONCE AGAIN, WE PLAYED THE TRAVELLER RPG for our weekly Family Game Night. Actually, that’s not strictly true. Well, it is and isn’t:

For the adventure I literally opened 21 Plots to a random page. In this case it was 19 – Ghost Station. I had the RMN Boys make each make series of random rolls which directed me to the second plot line. Then we were off.

Like before we played with very lite rules. Once again, the entire adventure took place “in the theater of the mind” with minimal mapping and no tokens or character minis. It helped that there was a thunderstorm in the area during the session and I was able to take advantage of a few “jump scares” caused by close thunder to use in the game.

The funniest moment of the game had to be when the adventurers made entry into the darkened command center. As the doors slide aside, the first character charged in – and tripped over a body he didn’t see on the floor. Going down hard, the second through the door reacted by blindly firing into the room. Several rounds (and dangerous ricochets) later the team calmed down and discovered a very-dead mechanic on the floor of the still-darkened, and now slightly damaged, command center. Most frightening, the body was purple! Fearing an alien infestation (the station was deserted, what else could it be?), they “ensured” the body was really dead. Later, they would be asked by the Space Patrol if they had any idea how the purple-blooded Igellian (a race known for weak hearts from a low gravity planet in the next sector…info discoverable if they had bothered to use their medical skill) was shot. Shrugged shoulders was all they could offer.

We aren’t really using a true Classic Traveller Third Imperium setting but I draw upon parts of it as needed. That setting helps frame many of the in-universe limitations and norms which the RMN Boys are discovering (or we are incorporating) as we go. This was especially true as our session wrapped up and we found we still had some time. We took advantage of this extra opportunity to expand the sector map that we started before. I let each RMN Boy do the die rolling as I used the tables and recorded. We made several planets and some are very interesting:

  • An over-populated, high-tech, rich religious dictatorship in an Amber Zone (the RMN Boys immediately nicknamed this planet ‘Kool-Aid’)
  • An uninhabited planet with a deadly atmosphere and a gas giant in the system (perfect for a pirate base or a secret government research facility…maybe?)
  • A low-tech agricultural planet with a small technocracy (scientific research but why low tech?)
  • An agricultural water world (aquaculture?) with low population but sitting just next to that overcrowded, and very hungry, Amber Zone religious dictatorship.

At first the RMN Boys were not too impressed with a few planets (like the uninhabited one) but when I started musing out loud about the possibilities they got very interested, if not a bit worried.

I am really enjoying – and appreciating – the ability for so many different products to come together and be used to help create our setting. I don’t really know what to call our game except Traveller. The events of the past few weeks have taught me that Traveller is not so much a set of rules or a setting, but more an approach to the way we play an RPG. This is very much how I played Traveller back in the days of Marc Miller’s (@TravellerNews) then-GDW (and now Far Future Enterprises‘) Little Black Books. In many ways that is what I think is my Traveller Renaissance – playing a sci-fi RPG in a wide-open setting defined by us.

The original Traveller Little Black Books – mine are much more worn but no-less treasured

Feature image Gypsy Knights Games

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!

 

 

 

#RPGaDay 2017 – What is the best source for out-of-print RPGs?

#RPGaDay August 20, 2017

With the rise of online publishing and a consumer ‘renaissance’ in gaming, is this really a good question?

From Wizards of the Coast putting items on DriveThruRPG to Fantasy Flight Games republishing older classics; it looks like the consumer has voted (with their wallets) and demonstrated that they will BUY BUY BUY older games.

Take a look at Gen Con 50 (especially #gencon50 on Twitter) and you will see MANY games (tabletop board and RPGs). Most new, but some old.

Speaking of older games…I guess I really am getting old when my classic RPG of choice is now in the Gen Con museum. Just remember – out of print does not mean out-of-play!

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GENCON 50 Photo – “The first ever copy of ‘Traveller’ in the museum at GenCon 50” by Marc Miller, 17 Aug 2017 (from @RMBStudio1)

#RPGaDay 2017 – Which #RPG has the most inspiring interior art?

#RPGaDay August 12, 2017

Ah, the counterpart question to August 5 and “Which RPG cover best captures the spirit of the game?” Well, if you look at my answer you will see that I took a minimalist approach there. With regards to interior art, I guess I have to admit I am actually often ambivalent to the art; only if it is REALLY bad do I notice it.

With two exceptions.

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Marc Miller’s Traveller (aka Traveller 4) is often criticized for using Chris Foss artwork that many people say as NOT representative of Traveller. I respectfully disagree, Chris Foss is awesome! These days, Ian Stead is the hot Traveller ship illustrator and – as much as I love his work – it still doesn’t capture what Chris Foss  does for me.

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IMG_1859What actually captures my attention most are the black & white interior drawings not of ships, but of people that were drawn by Chris. Each illustration has some flavor text beneath it that is an adventure seed. Each is inspirational and the start of an adventure. Admittedly, each is minimalist; but Traveller has always been minimalist in my worldview. This is just right.

IMG_1860The second RPG that is the exception is Atomic Robo. I got into Atomic Robo the RPG before I read the comics. After reading the core book, I almost don’t have to read the comics. The interior art uses Atomic Robo and other characters to explain the game so well I occasionally just pick up the game to read the illustrations and not the rules!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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