#RPGThursday Retrospective – Traveller: 2300 – 1st Ed (GDW, 1986)

Traveller! In the year 2300AD! Who wants to play an early milieu Traveller campaign? I certainly did, and that is why I bought Traveller: 2300 in 1986.

Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that Traveller: 2300 was neither the Traveller rules nor the Traveller setting (I was not the only disappointed person, by 1988 the setting was renamed simply 2300 AD). But as I opened the box and read the Player’s Manual I became intrigued. This was a Hard Sci-Fi setting, with a timeline and background derived from the earlier Twilight: 2000. In 1986, I was in a bit of an anti-space opera mood (actually, anti-space fantasy as Star Wars was rapidly devolving into). Traveller: 2300 felt realistic, especially with the Near Stars Map and List showing all the stars within 50 light-years of Earth (in three dimensions!).

What I Thought of It Back Then – I loved the setting, and we did try to play a few times, but I remember the sessions bogging down because we just couldn’t figure out how to do things. I didn’t know it at the time, but Traveller: 2300 was an attempt by GDW to further their “house” system that had started in Twilight: 2000. In doing so, GDW attempted to define a Task System for the game. Starting on page 4 of the Referee’s Manual, GDW laid out their Task Resolution system. It was all summarized in one page (p. 9) of the manual.

And I was lost.

The biggest problem is a severe lack of examples of play. This was not the first game I experienced with Difficulty Levels (see Paranoia or James Bond) but in their efforts to define tasks they ended up making it too complicated. The scariest part was “Step 6. Referee records task description.” References to notebooks or file cards or even computer files seemed (at the time) to be taking this RPG-thing to extremes. The game didn’t feel playable out-of-the-box.

What I Think of It Today – Even today I have to step through the Checklist for Task Resolution carefully. It’s all there, but not all on the one-page Task Resolution helper. Graphically, the system would be better served by flowcharts…and an Example of Play!

From an RPG-perspective, I give Traveller: 2300 Totally Subjective Game Rating (Scale of 1-5):

  • System Crunch = 3 (Early Task Resolution System attempt that is unclear)
  • Simulationist = 4 (Attempt at Hard Sci-Fi)
  • Narrativism = 2 (Uses task difficulty and mishaps)

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

#RPGThursday Retrospective – Paranoia (1st Ed), 1984

Once again, I am surprised that I have yet another award-winning RPG in my collection. In this case, Paranoia (1st Ed) was the 1984 HG Wells Best Roleplaying Rules co-winner with Twilight: 2000. Unlike T2K, which I consider a wargame with an RPG engine for character creation, Paranoia is a true RPG, albeit unlike any other before, and maybe ever since.

In Paranoia, the player characters are Troubleshooters in service to the computer in Alpha Complex. Alpha Complex is at war with the “commies.” Every resident of Alpha Complex has a security clearance; the higher the clearance the more you know. All residents belong to one of eight service groups with articular responsibilities to Alpha Complex. Troubleshooters are “elite” members assigned by the computer to root out trouble. Trouble comes from Secret Societies, membership in is treasonous and grounds for execution. All residents are members of secret societies. There are also mutant powers; but having a mutant power is treasonous and grounds for death. All residents have mutant powers. Always remember that the Computer is your friend. The Computer wants you to be happy. If you are not happy, you may be used as reactor shielding. (Player Handbook, 1.2 Setting)

The extreme differences between Paranoia and other RPGs was clearly laid out in Notes to Experienced Players:

  1. The Tone: Paranoia is designed for the humorous and farcical side of dramatic action-adventure. Other games tend to be more melodramatic, often to the point where the fun is neglected. Translation: Paranoia is fun. Other games are not fun. Play Paranoia.
  2. The Dramatic Conflicts: The conflicts in Paranoia will be as much with the other player  characters as with the gamemaster’s plotted obstacles. There is no more perilous threat than that represented by another hostile player character. Translation: If you think surviving a gamemaster is difficult, try surviving player characters.
  3. Player Character Mortality: Anxiety about player character death is often a major block to fun in role-playing games. The trauma of losing an imaginative alter ego, the destruction of a work of art (the personality of the player character) representing an investment of time, imagination, and spirit, and the inconvenience of having to roll up a new character from scratch – these are good reasons for being anxious about player character death. (Player Handbook 2.3)

Character generation is very well laid out, starting with “Take a character sheet” and ending with “Make a copy for the gamemaster.” Primary Attributes are straight die-rolls, Secondary Attributes are derived, and skills are purchased in trees.

The Core Mechanic has two forms, Attribute Checks and Skill Checks. Attribute Checks compare the Primary Attribute against an escalating number of D10; from Extremely Easy (1D10) to Outrageously Difficult (5D10). Success is rolling UNDER the Attribute on nD10. Skill Checks are a percentile (d100) roll against the Skill Level with the base percentage suitably modified by the gamemaster for difficulty (often base percentage x2 for Easy, down to base percentage x1/2 or even x1/4 for Very Difficult). Any “difference” in the roll is used as “a clue to how dramatically successful or unsuccessful the character is” (Gamemaster Handbook 11.1).

Combat in Paranoia uses the Dramatic Tactical System. As laid out in the Gamemasters Handbook:

Many role-playing games use complicated, time-consuming methods to resolve combat. These systems involve careful placement of metal miniatures on a table or counters on a hex-map to indicate the positions of characters, set movement rates which involve counting hexes or measuring distances when characters move, complicated rules for when characters may fight each other, and involved systems for calculating how damage is inflicted, how many “hit points” a character suffers, and where the wounds are located.

The problem with systems like this is that they turn what is supposed to be a role-playing game into a wargame….

If Paranoia is a movie, it’s a lot more like Dirty Harry than Terms of Endearment; characters fall like flies.

In summary:

  2. Don’t give them time to think.
  3. Reward flamboyance and strange ideas.
  4. Kill the bastards.
  5. Most important, KEEP THINGS MOVING.

This commitment to a Dramatic Tactical System is all the more surprising when one realizes Paranoia was developed by many of the same people that did Commando just five years earlier.

What I Thought of It Then – Although my group loved the idea of Paranoia, we didn’t “get” the idea and sessions developed into simple shoot-outs with little adventure. Very quickly, Paranoia ended up on the shelf not to be played.

What I Think of It NowParanoia could be considered my first “storytelling” RPG. Although the tone of the game is totally opposite of all other RPGs of the day, the narrative elements and simple Core Mechanic are to be deeply respected. It certainly takes the right group to play this game, and the setting does not lend itself to a longer campaign, but the narrative elements make for a great RPG adventure.

From an RPG-perspective, I give Paranoia a Totally Subjective Game Rating (Scale of 1-5):

System Crunch = 2.5 (Simple Core Mechanic)
Simulationist = 2 (Very cinematic – not strict realism)
Narrativism = 4 (Dramatic Tactical System – all in the players heads)

#RPGThursday Retrospective – Twilight: 2000 (GDW, 1984)

I came of age in the 1980’s right at the height of the Cold War. I went to high school in the era of Ronald Reagan, the Evil Empire, and Star Wars (as in the Strategic Defense Initiative). Like others of my time, we lived under the constant specter of nuclear war. I had read Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War: August 1985, which told the tale of a near-future war in Europe. I also read Strieber and Kunetka’s War Day and the Journey Onward and watched the movie The Day After which both dealt with the aftermath of a nuclear war in America. I did’t know it at the time, but in 1983 the US and Soviet Union came very close to war (see Able Archer 83). So it was with great anticipation that I purchased Twilight:2000 (1st Ed), published by GDW in 1984. The player characters were soldiers, cut off in Europe at the end of a nuclear war, that must survive and maybe even get home.

Once again, I was surprised that T2K was the 1984 HG Wells Best Roleplaying Rules Co-Winner (along with Paranoia – next weeks retrospective). T2K was designed by Frank Chadwick, a prolific wargame and RPG designer and associate designer of Traveller. In 1984, he was the Charles S. Roberts Hall of Fame Award winner and inducted into the Origin Hall of Fame in 1985. I make this point because T2K is alot like Traveller; a simple Core Mechanic wrapped around a very thematic setting with a heavy emphasis on combat. There is little-to-no narrative play in the system. To me, this was a comfortable system. T2K was the first game where I experienced the GDW House System.

Character generation was a mix of rolled Attributes which, after a little math, led to Characteristics. Other important parts of the character included Coolness Under Fire. Service history was a life path-like process, although Skills were purchased. For me, this was a comfortable area; enough like Traveller to be familiar but different enough to be interesting.

The Core Mechanic was a simple percentile die (d100) roll against a skill level (or Attribute x5 if against an Attribute). There was a very simple difficulty system. A Difficult task took the Asset (Skill) /2 as the Target Number. An Average check was straight against the Asset where an Easy task was Asset x2 for the Target Number. There were provisions for Opposed Checks, as well as rules for Outstanding Success and Catastrophic Failure.

Fatigue also was a major component of the rules, a section that at the time I failed to realize was so important. Fatigue reduced Strength, Agility, Constitution and Intelligence. Too much fatigue and the character became semi-catatonic and slowed down, even reaching unconsciousness! To combat fatigue, sleep and rest were needed. Hand-in-hand with fatigue came the Upkeep rules, which we ignored back in the day but I now realize are some of the most important parts of the setting. Finding food, be it by foraging or hunting or fishing, was as important (if not more so) than tracking ammo or fuel consumption and maintaining vehicles or animals. These two rules, Fatigue and Upkeep, are actually the heart of the game showing the difficulty in surviving the post-apocalyptic wastelands.

Combat used a simple three-step process: Did you hit? Where did you hit? How hard did you hit? Each Combat Turn consisted of actions. This is where the Coolness Under Fire came in. The character’s Coolness Under Fire rating determined how often the character hesitated in combat. More Cool, less hesitation. A simple, elegant mechanic that helped define veterans against combat novices.

Much like Behind Enemy Lines, T2K also used Encounter Tables to help drive the action. Of great interest to me at the time, Non-Player Character (NPC) motivations were determined by drawing from a deck of playing cards. Another simple, elegant way of randomizing (or describing) what drove an NPC to act.

What I Thought of It Then – Back in the day, T2K became the replacement game for Traveller in our group. We gobbled up the supplements, especially the Order of Battle books and weapons. This was because we were still wargamers at heart, and T2K is nearly a wargame. We also loved the story bites; they made the book come alive.

What I Think of It Now – T2K is more  wargame than an RPG. Like Behind Enemy Lines, I am not sure this game really deserves to be called an RPG, much less an RPG rules award winner. Eventually, T2K would get its own wargame, Last Battle: Twilight -2000. Indeed, of the 24-page Player Manual and 31-page Referee’s Manual, there is just one (1) page devoted to Referee Notes. The notes don’t give many referee hints.

There is one question this manual has not answered so far, but it will be one of the first questions your players ask, “what are we supposed to be doing?” The obvious, and correct, answer is, “Staying alive.” It is correct, but it isn’t enough. The players need a long-range goal as well, which gives them a reason for wanting to stay alive. This is one they will have to supply themselves, to some extent, but as the referee you have the responsibility to help them along.

T2K has almost no narrative play baked into the system. What little bit was there depended upon the referee, not the players. In the Play Manual Introduction, the Referee was expectations were defined as follows:

The purpose of the referee is to describe the world the players are traveling and adventuring in. The referee plays the role of the non-player characters (NPCs) encountered along the way and adjudicates all conflicts and battles. It is his responsibility to keep the game exciting for the players. The requires several special qualities.

First, the referee must be imaginative….

Second, the referee should have the ability to improvise….

Finally, the referee must have a sense of proportion….

A good referee should so structure the player’s adventures that they are always aware of being extremely close to danger and destruction….The assumption of the game is that players who exercise good judgement and cunning, and who make wise use of their personal strengths, can survive.

There was only a slight nod to the players in the Play Manual Introduction:

The players are the heart of Twilight: 2000. While the referee creates the world, it is the players who travel through it and, by their actions, ultimately change it. The course of the game is a description of the adventures of a band of men and women attempting to survive and perhaps strike a blow for their beliefs. The game will take on more interest if the players seriously attempt to make their characters “come alive.” When playing, they should keep in mind who their characters are and try to act accordingly.

At the time, our group didn’t really think about this because we saw our characters defined more by their equipment than by their motivations.

From an RPG-perspective, I give Twilight: 2000 (1st Ed.) Totally Subjective Game Rating (Scale of 1-5):

  • System Crunch = 2.5 (Does account for Difficulty)
  • Simulationist = 5 (A deadly game)
  • Narrativism = 1.5 (Outstanding Success/Catastrophic Failure and NPC motivations)