I started playing the Traveller roleplaying game in 1979 using the original 1977 Little Black Books (LBB). Very quickly I started picking up other expansions, the first of which was Traveller Book 4 Mercenary (GDW, 1978). For a wargamer (of which I was a nascent one at the time) this book was a digest-sized heaven. Here I had both wargame and roleplaying game coming together. Forty years later, my perspectives have changed, but Mercenary still remains an absolutely essential part of my Traveller gaming universe.
“Frank”-ly, A Wargamer’s RPG Expansion
Traveller Book 4 Mercenary was designed by Frank Chadwick. Yes, “designed” is how he is credited in the front matter of the book. It’s important to realize that Traveller is not just a set of core gaming mechanisms, but in many ways a collection of related game systems. Only years later would I come to understand just how lucky we are that Mr. Chadwick was not only a wargame designer, but a major creator in the Traveller RPG product line. Frank brought his wargame design chops to bear in important Traveller game systems, especially in combat. The Traveller Combat System in the LBB was his creation. The Abstract Combat rules in Mercenary are also his.
While some out there may want to deny that roleplaying games evolved from wargames, I hope none of them are ignorant enough not to realize the contributions wargame designers had in multiple products. Mercenary is an excellent example of the immense value-added wargame designers bring into the RPG hobby.
Vietnam in the Stars
Paging through Mercenary, the first real content one encounters is an illustration of a soldier. What always strikes me, as much now as it did then, is just how un-advanced the soldier looks. The soldier is wearing loose-fitting fatigues with a very Vietnam War-era flak jacket and helmet with a visor in front and an antenna-fed commo link on back. The most advanced piece of kit is the carbine attached to a power cord running to a pack on the back. In 1979 this was about as far from Heinlein’s concept of Starship Troopers as you could get, and seemed almost quaint in the years following Star Wars and white armored Storm Troopers.
Shadows of the (Third) Coming
Traveller ’77 is a setting-less set of rules.However, the popularity of Traveller was such that there was a clamor for a default setting. In Mercenary we get the first shadows of what would eventually become the Third Imperium:
Traveller assumes a remote centralized government (referred to in this volume as the Imperium), possessed of great industrial and technological might, but unable, due to the sheer distances and travel times involved, to exert total control at all levels everywhere within its star-spanning realm. On the frontiers, extensive home rule provisions allow planetary populations to choose their own forms of government, raise and maintain armed forces for local security, pass and enforce laws governing local conduct, and regulate (within limits) commerce. Defense of the frontier is mostly provided by local indigenous forces, stiffened by scattered lmperial naval bases manned by small but extremely sophisticated forces. Conflicting local interests often settle their differences by force of arms, with lmperial forces looking quietly the other way, unable to effectively intervene as a police force in any but the most wide-spread of conflicts without jeopardizing their primary mission of the defense of the realm. Only when local conflicts threaten either the security or the economy of the area do lmperial forces take an active hand, and then it is with speed and overwhelming force.
Mercenary, p. 1
Small local conflicts needing trained soldiers was perfect for—mercenaries:
Within this vast Imperium there is a role for mercenary combat units: The combat environment of the frontier, then is one of small, short, limited wars. Both sides must carefully balance the considerations of how much force is required to win a conflict with how much force is likely to trigger lmperial intervention. At the same time, both belligerents will generally be working with relatively small populations, with only a negligible number of combat experienced veterans. In this environment, the professional soldier will find constant employment. Small, poor states faced with invasion or encroachment will hire professional soldiers as cadres to drill and lead their citizen militias. Larger states will be able to afford to hire and equip complete mercenary contingents as strikers, or spearhead troops. Small commando units will be in demand as industrial espionage is waged between mega-corporations virtually nations unto themselves. In addition, the hired soldier will always be in demand as security or bodyguard troops, as force remains the only true protection against force. The Golden Age of the Mercenary will have arrived.
Mercenary, pp. 1-2
Many science fiction fans reading that passage today likely say, “Hammer’s Slammers!” You may not realize it, but in 1978 when Mercenary was published the entire Hammer’s Slammers universe consisted of only a small handful of short stories; the first book was not published until 1979! For myself, I didn’t get a copy of Hammer’s Slammers until after I had Mercenary in hand.
Even without Hammer’s Slammers I found the situation depicted in Mercenary very believable. The late 1970’s was still the Cold War and while the two superpowers didn’t trade blows, there were plenty of proxy wars fought. I could see the role of a Mercenary soldier in the real world which made imagining it in Traveller that much easier. More importantly, this was NOT Star Wars. This was NOT a large Empire chasing a small band of rag-tag rebels. Players were not constrained into a good-bad, light-dark binary conflict. Like the real world, there was plenty of room for ambiguity.
Soldier of Fortune
The character generation system in Mercenary was also my first encounter with the “expanded” character generation rules. Whereas Traveller used simple four-year terms, Mercenary dug a level deeper and followed characters in yearly increments. Looking back on the rules today, I certainly can see some rough edges, like the need to use both Book 1 and Book 4 together to make a character as not all the needed charts and tables were duplicated. That criticism sounds harsher than it really is as there was room in the LBB box to add Book 4 meaning it was easy to carry all you needed.
Ticket to Raid
The next section of Mercenary introduced “tickets.” These were legal contracts to hire mercenaries. To be honest, at first this part of adventuring was hard for me to understand because, once again, only a few example tickets were included. If you wanted more tickets the referee had to create them. I also didn’t understand why a junior officer leaving the Army would take a NCO position.
This is where eventually reading Hammer’s Slammers helped me understand Mercenary. The interludes in Hammer’s Slammers are prime setting background material for Mercenary. As I read one, I played the other. This perfect marriage of fiction and gaming is how Mercenary finally made sense to me.
[In the mid-1980s I finally was able to see the movie The Wild Geese (1978). After that Mercenary really made sense!]
I’ve written previously about the different combat systems in Traveller.As much as I wargamed I actually had lots of fun with the Abstract System in Mercenary. This was a combat game we could play at the lunchroom table throwing dice with one hand and stuffing a PB&J in our mouth with the other. Sure, we could set up a more hex & counter wargame but this was the original fast, fun, and furious Traveller combat game.
Ironmongery was a word I had never heard before Mercenary; after this it became a part of my life. Starting a few years before finding Traveller I had been taken in by the many Jane’s type of weapons books. The ironmongery section of Mercenary showed me how to “cross-walk” a real-world weapon into my roleplaying games. That skill also enabled me to start creating my own weapons system in wargames. Many years later I finally realized that what was I was doing was creating models for use in a simulation. That skill has served me well over the years; though I was never a wargame designer that skill set has been essential to my career. Yet another influence Traveller had on my life.
You’re in the Army Now
Feeling a bit nostalgic, I decided to go back to Mercenary ’78 and create a character. Let me introduce you to Onche Sm’th (starting UPP: BAA885).
Onche joined the Cavalry Branch of the Army. After completing Basic Training as a Combat Rifleman (ACR-1) and a heavy weapons gunner (Hvy Wpns Autocannon-1), somebody thought this monster of a being would make a good medic as he was sent to Specialist School and picked up Medic-1. Year two saw Sm’th fight in a Counter Insurgency. Year three was a training assignment, but year four was a Police Action in which Onche received both the Meritorious Conduct Under Fire (MCUF) and a Wound Badge. In the last two years Sm’th also moved from gunner to driver, learning the intricacies of driving wheeled combat vehicles (Driver Wheeled Vehicle-2).
While Onche was in the hospital recovering from his wounds he heard about the mercenary life. Deciding that if he was going to get shot he wanted to be much better compensated, he got out after his first term seeking fame and fortune.
Resume: BAB885, Army, One Term, Enlisted in Cavalry, Final Rank – Sergeant
Special Assignments: Specialist School
Awards & Decorations: Meritorious Conduct Under Fire (MCUF), 2x Combat Ribbon, Wound Badge
Equipment Qualified On: ACR, Autocannon, Wheeled Ground Vehicle
Full of himself, Onche couldn’t wait to get out and immediately tried to get hired on. Alas, he quickly learned that a one-term Sergeant isn’t a high-demand person. In his first three weeks, Onche was rejected for a Security and two Commando tickets. As the month was ending Onche was getting rather worried, but finally he was able to hire onto a small Cadre ticket as a Squad Leader.
[I’m playing these “games” in my B’rron Subsector, the geopolitics of which I laid out in a previous post.]
Background: The Quinto Expanse has a problem. There are rumors that “The Heresy” has plans to expand, and the Quinto Expanse is the nearest star nation to face them and logical first target. The QDF needs to bolster their defense force and it needs experienced cadre.
Mission: The Quinto Defense Force has hired a small cadre force (not to exceed 12 personnel) at double standard salary to train and lead a particular company of the QDF. There are four junior officer commissions and nine NCO positions. The company and all three platoons are led by a mercenary officer with a QDF deputy. NCOs are seeded throughout leadership positions in the platoons. Normal salaries are paid to individual soldiers with additional salaries to the unit for profit and disbursement of shares.
Onche is quite happy to be a squad leader. His squad is carried in a TL-9 armored infantry fighting vehicle with a pintle-mounted autocannon.
Onche is not quite as happy when he finds out that his unit is being lifted—without their vehicles—to the almost-moon desert world of Castaway for “training.” Castaway has only .35g and a trace atmosphere. Onche is not trained in low-grav environments nor vacc suits. He tries to pay attention to the training he is given (Vacc Suit-0, avoid untrained penalty) but he is not so sure that this is better than three-squares a day in the Army…
This Wargame Wednesday entry is courtesy of @TheGascon who sent me down this rabbit hole from Twitter by simply asking me which Hammer’s Slammers rules I prefer. In my typical way, the answer is not simple and to understand my thinking we need to look at several decades of wargaming history. Come along as I dig into a bit of my gaming past (and present) to show you my Hammer’s Slammers wargaming evolution from the early 1980’s to today.
When I think of Hammer’s Slammers stories and wargames, the final battle in the novel Rolling Hot immediately comes to mind. Here, a severely understrength Task Force Ranson consisting at this point of a single hovertank and a handful of combat cars faces a (slightly) understrength local armored battalion. To me, a Hammer’s Slammers wargame needs to be able to recreate this battle—not necessarily the exact outcome but definitely the situation. Here is that situation as laid out so dramatically in the book:
Blue Three’s sensors had greater range and precision by an order of magnitude than those crammed into the combat cars, but the cars could process the data passed to them by the larger vehicle. The sidebar on Ranson’s multi-function display listed call signs, isolated in cross-talk overheard by the superb electronics of the tank pretending to be in Kawana while it waited on Chin Peng Rise north of the tiny hamlet.
There were twenty-five individual call signs. The AI broke them down as three companies consisting of three platoons—but no more than four tanks in any platoon (five would have been full strength). Some platoons were postulated from a single call sign.
Not all the Yokel tanks would indulge in the loose chatter that laid them out for Task Force Ranson like a roast for the carving; but most of them would, most of them were surely identified. The red cross-hatching that overlay the relief map in the main field of the display was the AI’s best estimate thus far of the the armored battalion’s disposition.
Blue Three was the frame of the trap and the bait within it; but the five combat cars of the west and east elements were the spring-loaded jaws that would snap the rat’s neck.
And this rat, Yokel or Consie, was lying. It was clear that the leading elements of First of the 4th were already deploying onto the southern slope of Sugar Knob, half a kilometer from the store and shanties of Kawana rather than ten kays their commander claimed.
In the next few seconds, the commander of the armored battalion would decide whether he wanted to meet allied mercenaries—or light the fuse that would certainly detonate in a battle more destructive than any citizen of Prosperity could imagine. He was being tested….
The two sharp green beads of Lieutenant Cooter’s element settled into position.
She heard a whisper in the southern sky. Incoming.
Rolling Hot, Chapter 12
Now let’s look back on the history of my Hammer’s Slammers wargames, or at least those titles I use to play out Hammer’s Slammers battles, and see how they did.
I discovered David Drakes Hammer’s Slammers paperback book not long after it was published, likely around 1980 or the year after it entered print. This was around the same time I discovered the (now) Classic Traveller role playing game from Game Designers’ Workshop. In early 1980 I found the three Little Black Books in my first FLGS, Fascination Corner, in south Denver. I’m not sure which came first, Classic Traveller Book 4: Mercenary or Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers, but the two books are forever linked in my mind.
From a wargaming perspective, Mercenary is an interesting collection of rules. There are actually three rules for combat resolution given in the book: The Traveller Combat System taken from LBB Book 1: Characters and Combat, the Abstract System which is just like the name says, and a Free-Form System which is undefined. As much as I seem to remember differently the truth is that looking back at the Tech Level advancements in Mercenary they don’t even discuss hovertanks. At Tech Level 9 military vehicles transition from track-laying/wheeled to grav—ground effect is never discussed. Back then I passed on buying Striker, a set of 15mm miniatures rules, that also had the Classic Traveller vehicle design system. If I had Striker I “think” I would have tried to design the Regiment. Regardless, the lack of Striker meant I used the Abstract System in Mercenary but never truly had a force specifically-built based on the Slammers’ universe.
The closest I came to a wargame with hovertanks in these early days actual was Steve Jackson’s Ogre/G.E.V. microgames from Metagaming. I say “close” because, like Mercenary, Hammer’s Slammers was inspiration for play but not closely simulated on the tabletop. Another set of Metagaming titles, Helltank and Helltank Destroyer, actually came a bit closer but, like Ogre/G.E.V., were just not quite Hammer-like to be honestly called a Hammer’s Slammers wargame.
The first “proper” Hammer’s Slammers wargame I owned was the namesake Hammer’s Slammers from Mayfair Games published in 1984. I am sure I got this one not long after it was published. Described by some as “PanzerBlitz in Spaaaace” this simple wargame with it’s interlocking modular map and asymmetric array of forces gives one a taste of the Hammer’s Slammers universe. Looking back on the game nearly 40 years later I still see a great simple wargame that, when played by savvy players and with attention to scenario design, is not always a walkover for The Regiment like some BoardGameGeek comments imply. Although published before Rolling Hot, this Hammer’s Slammers wargame can be used to recreate the signature battle if one is wiling to design the light tanks of the First of the 4th.
For a while it looked like my Hammer’s Slammers wargaming was going dark. In the 1990’s I was getting my military career started and science-fiction games fell to the wayside as I focused more on “modern” simulations. That said, three games did enter my collection that I (longingly) yearned to use for a Hammer’s Slammers game. Although Striker II by Frank Chadwick entered my collection, once again I lacked the Traveller: The New Era vehicle design system book so I could not design Regiment vehicles.
It was during this same period that two other rule sets entered my collection, both from Ground Zero Games in the U.K. Dirtside II and Stargrunt II, designed by Jon Tuffley and others, challenged my thinking about what wargame rules could be. Up until this point in my wargaming life, Frank Chadwick and Game Designers’ Workshop defined miniatures gaming for me. In particular, I viewed Frank’s Command Decision (World War II) and Combined Arms (Modern) rules, which Striker II was built upon, as the pinnacle of miniatures rules. I respected (prided?) the “realism” in the rules and how these games were almost hex & counter wargames on a miniatures tabletop. On the other hand, Dirtside II and Stargrunt II challenged my viewpoint by giving me a set of miniatures rules that were easy to learn and used “design for effect” instead of “realism.” I also had never thought to use anything other than a d6, d10, or d100 in a wargame. Now, instead of looking up which exact weapon was used on a table in the back of a book, I was rolling a d4, d8, or maybe even a d12 Quality Die for units. It totally changed my thinking as to what a set of wargame rules could be. The vehicle design rules in Dirtside II also gave me a chance to design a hovertank, something I had not been able to do up to this point with other rule sets. In particular Dirtside II, with its vehicle design system, made recreating the Rolling Hot battle quite easy.
The early 2000’s was a bad time for my wargaming hobby. Many issues conspired against me and the result was a lack of personal emphasis on wargaming. Instead, I leaned more into role playing games since, generally speaking, it took less space (and money) to buy a book than to buy a wagame. During this time, I rediscovered my passion for Traveller RPG with Mongoose Traveller (MgT). I loved MgT (at least the first edition) because it was basically an updated take on Classic Traveller. Starting with the core rules in 2008, the MgT line immediately added Book 1: Mercenary. Then there was a very exciting development….
In 2009, Mongoose Publishing printed a sourcebook for MgT titled Hammer’s Slammers. The book showed much promise as it was written with the support of David Drake himself. This book, featuring extensive background, showed me just how disconnected I had become from the Slammers universe and helped reenergize my interest in the series. As a wargame, however, the Mongoose Publishing Hammer’s Slammers was grossly lacking.
A decade ago I wrote on this blog my thoughts of the MgT Hammer’s Slammers. Alas, the years have not changed my thinking:
The Verdict: Let’s be clear about a bias first; I love the Hammer’s Slammers series of books and stories. More than anything else David Drake has defined for me what I think of when I hear the term “military science-fiction.”
This book is a true labor of love and worth the price for the background alone. Finally, in one place you have the entire history of the Slammers together; all the people and places, event and equipment. But how does it translate as an RPG?
Unfortunately, I feel that Mongoose fails to live up to the expectations here. Especially the boast on the back cover that claims, “With all vehicles created using the Traveller Vehicle Creation System, this book is guaranteed to be fully compatible with every other Traveller book, allowing you to mix and match supplements as you desire!”
So in no particular order, here are some thoughts on the book:
– What is up with the cover soldier? The outfit is nothing like I imagine a Hammer’s Slammers trooper to be like; blinking lights and the like and doesn’t even match the armor depicted on page 120 which is that used by the Slammers
– A “Mercenary Roster” is provided on page 21 comparing notable mercenary units; each is assigned a rating but ratings are never explained (ahh, on page 180 when making a Mercenary Contract the quality of a unit is used for a DM; quality similar to but not shown the same way as the ratings on page 21)
– Joining the Slammers can be direct or through The Connections Rule from the Core Book; you can also join the Slammers after finishing a military career as per the Core Rulebook or other supplement
– Who did the maps? They are HORRIBLE—gridded squares with cartoonish graphics don’t fit this high tech military setting; easily the worst part of the book
– The characters are great but again the kit doesn’t match what is provided elsewhere
– Errors abound when cross-referencing items; is the Protection for Light Ceramic Combat Shell (or is is called Clamshell, Light) 10 or 12?
– Tank Powerguns are really powerful; like they should be in this setting
– It is impossible to make any of the supertanks using the Vehicle Creation System found in Supplement 6: Military Vehicles; so much for “guaranteed to be fully compatible”
– Vehicle Combat introduces new range and hit systems; one should backfit this to the Core Rules
In sum, Hammer’s Slammers provides great background but it is not seamless in its integration with existing Traveller books and supplements. Putting them together can be done in places (character generation) but not in others (vehicle creation).
From a wargaming perspective, the combat system in MgT Hammer’s Slammers built upon the core combat rules in MgT. That is, they retained the focus on “vehicles as characters” and a very tactical (skirmish?) level of combat. One could conceivably roleplay a member of the Regiment but to fight took much more effort and much interpolation in the rules. At the end of the day, MgT was a near-total failure as a rules set for Hammer’s Slammers-style combat. From the perspective of Rolling Hot, MgT Hammer’s Slammers could certainly recreate the personalities but, even though all the equipment was there, recreating the battle in a playable manner was near-impossible.
At nearly the same time Mongoose Publishing was giving us Hammer’s Slammers for Mongoose Traveller, another British publisher was also working with David Drake to give us a set of miniatures wargame rules very tightly focused on the Hammerverse. The Hammer’s Slammers Handbook, written by John Lambshead & John Treadaway, provided background, vehicle design and technical specifications, as well as, “an easy play gaming system.” The many shared graphics between the Handbook and MgT Hammer’s Slammers shows how closely linked the two products are. Which makes me wonder—why didn’t Mongoose use the Handbook and its combat system like GDW did with Frank Chadwick’s Striker 30 years earlier?
In 2010, John Treadaway and John Lambshead published the ultimate version of the Handbook. Now called Hammer’s Slammers: The Crucible, what started as a 50-page, digest-sized softcover Handbook grew into a hardcover, full-color 203 page book that proclaimed to be the “Ultimate, all-in-one rules system for tabletop gaming plus technical specifications, vehicle designs, timeline & background materials for the Slammers Universe.”
Like Dirtside II/Stargrunt II published two decades earlier, both the Handbook and The Crucible are tabletop miniatures rules that emphasize “design effect” over strict “realism.” As the introduction to the combat rules state:
These rules allow wargamers to re-fight the battles of the Slammers Armoured Regiment on a one to one scale, i.e. where one model equals one vehicle or one infantryman. Turning modern armoured warfare into a game, of necessity, involves a great deal of compromise. Thus the aim has been to recreate the spirit of the fast moving armoured engagements so brilliantly described by David Drake and so emphasis here is put on command and training rather than technology. Also, a simple ‘clean’ game system is employed so that the game flows quickly; infantry warfare in particular is abstracted. The rules focus on recreating an armoured skirmish game, as opposed to an infantry skirmish game with a few vehicles in support.
“Fighting with the Slammers: Introduction,” Hammer’s Slammers: The Crucible, p. 106
Finally, over twenty years after Rolling Hot was published, there is a set of wargame rules that can be used to faithfully recreate the battle situation. Resolving that battle also won’t break your sanity.
Although Hammer’s Slammers: The Crucible is certainly the final word in my collection on a wargame for the Slammerverse, it did not enter my collection until very recently. In the meantime, I experimented with another set of rules. Between the time I was battling with MgT Hammer’s Slammers and now, I tried Tomorrow’s War (Second Edition) from Osprey Publishing. I had high hopes for Tomorrow’s War as it was based on the (somewhat) acclaimed Force on Force rules. Alas, Tomorrow’s War took exactly the opposite design approach from The Crucible. Unlike The Crucible which focuses on armored combat (very Slammer-like), Tomorrow’s War focuses on infantry combat first with a set of vehicular rules that feel are very “bolted on.” To be fair, all the elements of a good Hammer’s Slammers battle are in the rules, but the infantry-first focus leaves certain elements—like vehicular combat—lacking. One can recreate Rolling Hot using Tomorrow’s War but it doesn’t play out as smoothly as The Handbook or The Crucible allows.
At the end of the day, this Grognard is very comfortable stating that Hammer’s Slammers: The Crucible really is the “ultimate” set of wargame rules. I like the rules enough that I am looking to invest in a line of 6mm miniatures to use for tabletop battles. Better yet, if @TheGascon makes a Tabletop Simulator (TTS) module for The Crucible, it may be enough for me to overstress my old laptop and play online….
Hammer’s Slammers works referenced:
“But Loyal to His Own” (c) 1975 by David Drake. Originally published in Galaxy, November 1974
“Supertanks” (c) 1979 by David Drake. Originally published in Hammer’s Slammers
“Night March” (c) 1997 by David Drake. Originally published in The Tank Lords
“Hangman” (c) 1979 by David Drake. Originally published in Hammer’s Slammers
“The Tank Lords” (c) 1986 by David Drake. Originally published in Far Frontiers, Vol. 6
“Caught in the Crossfire” (c) 1978 by David Drake, Originally published in Chrysalis 2
“Standing Down” (c) 1979 by David Drake. Originally published in Hammer’s Slammers
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 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 initial range
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.
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.
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.
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 (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.
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.
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.
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.”
Having gone on something of a Traveller RPG kick of sorts, I recently dug into the vehicle combat rules for the game. Doing so brought back some good memories, as well as some bad ones.
When it comes to the Traveller RPG, combat historically was divided into two formats; personal and large-scale. For starships, the “personal” scale is what is known as “Adventure Class Ships (ACS).” ACS ship combat was first spelled out in Book 2: Starships (GDW, 1977). Larger ships, called “Battle Class Ships (BCS)” were detailed in Book 5: High Guard (GDW, 1977, 1980). Likewise, for ground combat, the personal scale was found in Book 1: Characters and Combat (GDW, 1977) and the corresponding ‘mass combat’ rules were in Book 4: Mercenary (GDW, 1978) written by one Mr. Frank Chadwick. However, for ground combat the publisher of Traveller, Game Designers’ Workshop, took it a step further. They published a set of 15mm miniatures rules by Mr. Chadwick called Striker (GDW, 1981). I was unable to buy Striker back in the day, but I did have a small Judges Guild game expansion, Lazer Tank, that whetted my appetite for more.
Mr. Chadwick also designed the planetary invasion game Invasion: Earth (GDW, 1981) that I lusted over but didn’t actually own until this year. Suffice it to say that when I thought of combat in the Traveller RPG setting, I viewed it though a Frank Chadwick set of lenses.
Over the years I was able to acquire Striker II (GDW, 1994), part of the Traveller: The New Era edition of Traveller. Striker II was also designed by Frank Chadwick and part of his GDW ‘house’ series that used the same basic miniatures rules for World War I in Over the Top (GDW, 1990), World War II in Command Decision (GDW, 1986+), and the modern era in Combined Arms (GDW, 1988+). It also didn’t hurt that Traveller-adjacent RPG games like Twilight: 2000 (GDW, 1986) used another Frank Chadwick design for their ‘mass combat’ rules, in this case a combination wargame/roleplaying game supplement called Last Battle: Twilight 2000 (GDW, 1989).*
Somewhere after Striker II, the vehicle combat rules for Traveller changed and Mr. Chadwick was forgotten. I first noticed this when I picked up the Mongoose Traveller edition of Book 1: Mercenary (Mongoose Publishing, 2008) and found a very abstract set of rules. Suffice it to say I found the “Battle System – Large Scale Conflict in Traveller” not to my liking. Further, it was obviously written by people that had NO IDEA about weapons. It was actually comical; in the first edition the furthest the heaviest support weapon (in this case a Tech Level 15 Meson Accelerator) could shoot was 1.5….kilometers. There were many reasons I came to dislike Mongoose Traveller, but as a wargamer this pathetic approach was a major reason for me to disengage from their product line.
I fought. I resisted. This was the time I was finally, after all those years waiting, to get my hand on a copy of Striker. I vowed never to use the Mongoose Traveller, non-Chadwick approach. That is, until the 2009 release of Mongoose Traveller Hammer’s Slammers (Mongoose Publishing, 2009). I love David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers series of stories. I mean, this obviously was a real sci-fi combat game with Mr. Drake writing the Forward. I was sure that this was going to make Mongoose Traveller ‘mass combat’ awesome!
Defanged by a Mongoose
I was severely disappointed in the Mongoose Traveller Hammer’s Slammers. Oh, I enjoy having the history and characters and equipment of Hammer’s Slammers translated into game terms. Combat was another matter, with two approaches used in the book, neither of which resonated with me.
“Chapter 9: Vehicle Combat” was an extension of the Mongoose Traveller personal combat rules. It introduced a new scale, “Vehicle Scale” into the game. This scale was supposed to be a bridge between the personal and starship scales. Vehicle combat also continued the “vehicle as a character” approach to game rules. Every turn, the player characters (PCs) or non-player characters (NPCs) got actions. The most important action was Attack which is a Skill Check. Let me show you an example of how it works:
Lieutenant Danny Pritchard with Gunner-Turrets 2 skill fires the 20cm Powergun of his M2A1 supertank against the side of a TR6BKU-1 Black Skorpion turretless tank killer. The range is 2km making this a Long Range shot (+0 DM). Pritchard’s tank is moving but less than half-speed (-1 DM) as he shoots. He rolls 10 on 2d6, modified to 11 (+2 Skill, -1 Moving) which is more than the 8+ required for a hit. The 20cm powergun rolls 20d6+20 Super Destructive damage. Super Destructive means the first 20 points of the target’s armor is obliterated; in this case the 132 points of side armor is reduced to 102. The 20cm powergun then scores 82 points of damage – which the 102 points of armor stops. The Black Skorpion has escaped destruction, this turn.
The Black Skorpion fires back (assume an average crew with Gunner 2). At Long Range the 22cm coilgun has a -1 DM. The 2d6 To Hit roll is 7, modified to 8 with the total +1 DM – barely a hit! The 22cm coilgun scores 14d6 MegaAP damage. The damage total rolled is 49. The MegaAP means that the coilgun ignores armor points equal to 4x the number of dice rolled – in this case 14×4 or 56 points of armor. However, the front of the M2A1 is a whopping 175 points.
Laughing, Pritchard halts his hovertank and lines up another shot. Hit on the side again, the Black Skorpion loses another 20 points of armor, leaving it with 82. The Slammer’s powergun scores 92 damage, of which 10 penetrate and convert to 3x Single hits. Rolling for hit location yields Weapon (1st Hit = No Effect) – Sensors (First Hit = -1 to all future sensor checks) – Hull (31 remaining).
“Chapter 10: Conflict,” starts off by saying, “The aim of the rules is not to precisely simulate a conflict but to give the Referee a framework for designing adventures.” There is certainly enough in this chapter to create battle situations, but the section “Resolving the War” seems to me like it is an adjudication system for, well, resolving the war! Except this time the resolution is highly impersonal with leaders and factions and DMs for successful missions. This is a campaign game system not a combat resolution model.
Cepheus Engine Rebirth?
After the debacle of Mongoose Traveller Hammer’s Slammers I went in search of other rule sets for use in my Traveller campaigns. I experimented with both Dirtside II (1993) and Stargrunt II (1996) from Ground Zero Games. I tried Tomorrow’s War (Second Edition) from Osprey Publishing (2011). I really like Dirtside II as it has a vehicle design system like in Striker but it just feels a bit off when in play.
What do I want? I want a good, clean set of large scale combat rules that use skills and vehicles created in Cepheus Engine. I want an updated Chadwick; maybe a relook at Striker with modern publishing sensibilities and approaches to game mechanics. Sure, some will say, “It’s an RPG, focus on the CHARACTERS!” Well, if you pay attention to what Mr. Chadwick told us in Striker several decades ago it will:
One 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.
Striker: Rule Book 1 – Basic Rules, Introduction, p. 4
*To be clear, Last Battle: Twilight 2000 was designed by Tim Ryan but used Frank Chadwick’s First Battle system.
Commando: The Combat Adventure Game was published by SPI in 1979. I didn’t buy this game; it came to me thru a trade with a friend sometime between 1980 and 1982. I was running our (Classic) Traveller RPG adventures and use both the 1978 [Little Black] Book 4: Mercenary and the 1979 green box, first edition of Snapshot: Close Combat Aboard Starships in the Far Future for expanded combat. Given our group came from a wargaming background, we were looking for different combat rules. We avoided Striker(1981), likely because it was a set of miniatures rules and we couldn’t afford miniatures! At one point we tried to integrate Commandointo our games. My copy has scribbles (like only middle schoolers can do) where weapons on tables were replaced with their Traveller versions. As I recall, this system integration effort didn’t get far mostly because Commando is a very rules-dense game with a very specific Sequence of Play. More importantly, the game is historically focused and us middle schoolers couldn’t wrap our heads around how to integrate the Fusion Gun, Man Portable-15 (FGMP-15) into the game. Far easier to just use Snapshot!
When preparing for this article, I was surprised to discover that Commando was the 1979 H.G. Wells Best Roleplaying Rules Winner. So is this a wargame or an RPG? Interestingly, the game has an entry both at BoardGameGeek and RPGGeek. The Historical Game is clearly a wargame. More specifically, it is a skirmish game of man-to-man battle. A 48-page rulebook uses the SPI classic Case System of numbered paragraphs. The other game of Commando is the role-playing game. This game is covered in a second 24-page rulebook. Here one finds the classic components of an RPG including gamemaster hints, character creation, and running a campaign.
Looking at the game today, The Designer’s Notes and Expansion Notes at the end of the role-playing game rules are true treasures. Note that in the late 70’s I was not a Dungeons & Dragons (Original or Basic/First Edition) player – I actually avoided D&D because I preferred science fiction over fantasy genres. Although I didn’t understand it at the time, these notes capture the dynamics of the competition between wargamers and the rising RPG community. There is so much goodness here and I hope the legacy SPI copyright holders can forgive me for some lengthy quotes.
First off, some choice lines from the Designer’s Notes written by Eric Goldberg in 1979:
Role-playing is perhaps the fastest growing genre within the wargaming hobby. Boosted by the phenomenal success of fantasy role-playing, the field is branching out from its roots into more conventional endeavors. There is no serious doubt that fantasy role-playing will continue to hold sway within the field, but there are many other possible applications of role-play. While fantasy does have some problems of its own (chief being the need to define magic numerically, which strips it of its mystery), designers of fantasy role-playing games can justify almost anything through magic.
One of the first design mechanics resolved was the use of the Miraculous Escape Matrix and the incorporation of a Character in a fire team. Because the Historical Game was already being used as the combat system (a choice which makes eminently good sense; Players appreciate a game being complete when received – generally not a custom observed by role-playing designers), the fatality rate of Characters was at a level unacceptable to the average Player. After all, a Player would have little incentive to build up and breathe life into his Character if he knew the odds had it that he would have to start all over again every five missions. There is no recourse to the fantasy role-playing solution – the last Man purported to be resurrected was a gentleman of Nazareth, but that was 2000 years ago, and it was understood He had considerable help from the man upstairs.
Character generation systems have proliferated in recent months, but basically represent two schools of thought. One holds Characters should be different, and this difference should be determined randomly (generally by dice). The logic behind this approach is that life isn’t fair in distributing physical and mental characteristics to you and me, and why should it be any different in a role-playing game? The illogic in the use of the system it that it clearly proved the better dice-roller is Homo Superior. The other approach is the all Characters are equal, which is usually resolved by a point assignment system – Characters may have “X” points assigned to their various characteristics in a particular fashion. Thus, Characters are molded to their players’ preferences. The argument for this system is obvious; free choice of character-type and all Characters are equal. In truth, the second claim is a sham; there is not one role-playing game on the market which will work equitably with a point assignment system. The general problem is that one or two characteristics are extremely important, and therefore, to be competitive, all Characters will be essentially similar.
Commando breaks a bit of new ground in role-playing games by the very nature of its subject, and also because of its design approach. The game will appeal to those who feel most comfortable with suspense fiction, and those who can easily make the transition from tactical game or role-playing games. There is certainly tremendous unmapped territory to be gone over in this field. Commando is nearly the groundbreaker.
Greg Costikyan contributed Expansion Notes (again from 1979):
…true role-playing games can be divided into two general categories (with some overlap between categories occurring); closed-system role-playing games and open-ended role-playing games. An open-ended role-playing game requires a Gamemaster to invent a world, construct adventures for the characters, and provide new rules as necessary to round out his world. The rules to an open-ended role-playing game are designed not so much to limit the Gamemaster, as to provide a flexible framework of rules to be amended as he desires, and which aid him in the construction and operation of a world.
A closed-system role-playing game, by contrast, may not even require a Gamemaster. The best example of this is En Garde!A closed-system role-playing game provides a set of rules that are closer to the rules of standard historical games in spirit than the the rules of open-ended role-playing games. The rules cover every eventuality that may arise in the course of play; they are a closed-system not requiring outside interference.
…the existence of a Gamemaster in Commando means that the game can be readily developed into an open-ended role-playing game with comparative ease. Doing so requires junking the scenario generation system, because an open-ended games must deal with the everyday life of the characters, as well as whatever combat actions they involve themselves in. (Thus, in a good fantasy role-playing world, the emphasis of the game is not on hack-and-slash monster fighting, but on development of characters and the world.)
…. In an open-ended game, anything (well, almost anything) is possible; the game is limited only by the flexible framework of the rules, and the imagination of the Gamemaster and Players….The appeal of even badly-written role-playing games lies in this potentially infinite variety; while one may be bored with a boardgame after the fifth playing, one will never be bored with an open-ended role-playing game (assuming a sufficiently imaginative Gamemaster).
Unbeknownst to me at the time, these notes actually captured much of what I was feeling in my early role-playing days. SPI was one of the powerhouses of wargames; as a true grognard if this was their perspective I needed to pay attention! With the benefit of nearly 30 years of hindsight, I can now see that my wargaming roots started me out as a closed-system aficionado. As I go though my retrospective of RPGs, its going to be interesting to see how my tastes evolved over time.
From an RPG-perspective, I give this game a Totally Subjective Game Rating (Scale of 1-5):
System Crunch = 5 (Combat system from Historical Game is rules-heavy)
Simulationist = 4 (There is a reason you create a Character and the Fireteam)
Narrativism = 1.5 (The Miraculous Escape Matrix necessitates a large suspension of reality)
In late October, Mongoose dropped another update to their Mongoose Traveller Second Edition (Beta) Core Rulebook. They dropped a .doc version of High Guard (starship construction rules). They had already dropped a .doc version of Central Supply Catalog (CSC for ironmongery and vehicles) earlier in the month. With these three “books,” the core rules for MgT2E is pretty much complete.
My verdict so far: “I’m whelmed.”
In the Core Rulebook, one of the biggest changes was to the core mechanic through the introduction of “Boon/Bane.” This mechanic called for a roll of 3d6 and selecting either the highest two die (Boon) or lowest two die (Bane) for your roll. The first draft tried to put Boon/Bane in many places but resulted in many confusing rules contradictions. In later drafts Boon/Bane remains but is a shadow of its former self and seemingly now treated as a far-off optional house rule that isn’t necessary for the game.
The other major change was to ship construction since ships now have power requirements. Although this change has good roleplaying potential (“Need more power, Scotty!”) it also adds more complexity to the ship construction rules which we finally get to see in the High Guard draft. At this point, I am not sure the additional roleplaying or combat limitations that ships power production and uses have actually make the game that-much-more interesting.
So now I have to ask myself, “What makes MgT2E different and better than first edition?” At first I would have answered with “an updated core mechanic and more detailed ship combat rules.” Now I see a core mechanic not far from 1st Edition (or even Classic Traveller) and new ships power rules that don’t really add much to the game.
The Traveller RPG has always been a series of smaller games (character generation, personal combat, vehicle and ship combat, world building, trade, etc.) that (fairly) smoothly integrated together to make a rich and robust play experience. Mongoose embraced this approach with their First Edition, but seemed to be stepping away from that approach in later publications. One has to look no further than Mercenary 2nd Edition (confusingly part of the First Edition rules) where Mongoose dropped the Mercenary Ticket generation system and tried to make a Mass Combat system based onto personal combat rules. IT DIDN”T WORK. So far, MgT2E seems to be carrying on that line of rules development.
As a Beta purchaser, Mongoose promised a $20 voucher towards the final product. It will be interesting to see if the final product comes in at $19.99 or if it will be more. Mongoose tends to be on the expensive side and that is part of the reason I usually throw my money towards smaller publishers like Gyspy Knights Games. The smaller publishers seem more affordable – and an overall better value – than Mongoose has been to me in the past.