#RPGThursday – Why #TravellerRPG is not #GameofThrones (and that’s a really good thing)

MUCH IS BEING WRITTEN ABOUT the finale of HBO’s Game of Thrones. One of the more interesting articles I read comes from Scientific America in their Observations blog online. Zeynep Tufekci writes, “The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones – It’s not just bad storytelling — it’s because the storytelling style changed from sociological to psychological.”

As Tufekci writes:

At its best, GOT was a beast as rare as a friendly dragon in King’s Landing: it was sociological and institutional storytelling in a medium dominated by the psychological and the individual. This structural storytelling era of the show lasted through the seasons when it was based on the novels by George R. R. Martin, who seemed to specialize in having characters evolve in response to the broader institutional settings, incentives and norms that surround them.

After the show ran ahead of the novels, however, it was taken over by powerful Hollywood showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. Some fans and critics have been assuming that the duo changed the narrative to fit Hollywood tropes or to speed things up, but that’s unlikely. In fact, they probably stuck to the narrative points that were given to them, if only in outline form, by the original author. What they did is something different, but in many ways more fundamental: Benioff and Weiss steer the narrative lane away from the sociological and shifted to the psychological. That’s the main, and often only, way Hollywood and most television writers tell stories.

This got me thinking. Why is it that I like the Classic Traveller RPG? I think it’s because Traveller is at it’s root sociological, unlike other games like Dungeons & Dragons which are psychological.

Bear with me here.

The connection hit me in part because I introduced the RockyMountainNavy Boys to the Cepheus Engine System recently. Like Classic Traveller, character generation in Cepheus Engine is a series of die rolls. There is some player agency in the process but for the most part the output of the character generation process is a very everyday character. The character is not a hero. There is little chance to min-max character stats – the player starts with the hand they are dealt (or restarts in the event of character death). In play the player must then respond “to the broader institutional settings, incentives and norms that surround them.”

In many other RPG systems character generation is much more personal (psychological). Start with a character concept, then build the character using the right tables. The result is often a heroic character – and that’s by design. After all, who wants to play an everyday drone in the world? They have to live, level up, get more spells, and become more powerful.

Let’s look at how Tufekci describes the best of GOT – character death:

One clue is clearly the show’s willingness to kill off major characters, early and often, without losing the thread of the story. TV shows that travel in the psychological lane rarely do that because they depend on viewers identifying with the characters and becoming invested in them to carry the story, rather than looking at the bigger picture of the society, institutions and norms that we interact with and which shape us. They can’t just kill major characters because those are the key tools with which they’re building the story and using as hooks to hold viewers.

The same applies to many RPGs and its why there is often a major reluctance to kill off characters in a campaign. Unless, of course, there is a “heroic” reason to do so.

Tufekci continues:

The appeal of a show that routinely kills major characters signals a different kind of storytelling, where a single charismatic and/or powerful individual, along with his or her internal dynamics, doesn’t carry the whole narrative and explanatory burden. Given the dearth of such narratives in fiction and in TV, this approach clearly resonated with a large fan base that latched on to the show.

In sociological storytelling, the characters have personal stories and agency, of course, but those are also greatly shaped by institutions and events around them. The incentives for characters’ behavior come noticeably from these external forces, too, and even strongly influence their inner life.

Personal stories and agency…hallmarks of a good RPG. But how many GMs use institution and events – external forces – to shape player characters?

I now see that Traveller and Cepheus Engine have sociological storytelling baked-in at their core. This is what makes these systems so interesting to me. Like other RPG players, I want to be a hero but I derive more pleasure at achieving without a heroic character being given to me.

#RPGThursday – All hail the Almighty Credit (@GKGames, 2018) #TravellerRPG #CepheusEngine #ClementSector

LAST WEEK I took a quick look at Balancing Act, a sourcebook on interstellar relations in The Clement Sector setting for Cepheus Engine (or, as I call it, CETrav). This week I look at the companion publication, Almighty Credit: Corporations in Clement Sector.

Almighty Credit provides lots of background including personalities and corporations. Through these vignettes one discovers much of the history of Clement Sector. Once again, I appreciate what Gypsy Knights gives players and GMs; much of this history is open and plants seeds for adventures. One learns a whole lot more about Clement Sector but going forward the story is YOURS!

Following the vignettes is some legal definitions of different corporations and rules for banking. You know, important ones like Obtaining an Unsecured Loan. This is followed by two new careers; Corporate Courier and Corporate Fleet.

Like Balancing Act, Almighty Credit also has a “game.” In the Almighty Credit version, you play the head of a corporation and agents. The Almighty Credit game is fully compatible with Balancing Act; they can be played together to get the classic trope of government vs corporate powers.

Last week I expressed confusion over the point of these games, mostly because I failed to understand how they can integrate into a campaign. In the past week I have thought about it more and see these games as useful “time jumps” to advance a campaign or set the stage for a new one. I am less concerned about how to integrate my characters into the games and more concerned about how they can advance a story or adventure in a direction the players and GM can enjoy. Fortunately, like so many Gypsy Knights Games products, Almighty Credit gives me the tools to make this happen.

In the end, did I really need Almighty Credit? Not really, but I am really happy I picked it up. The tremendous background gives me lots of inspiration and the “game” is a useful tool to serves as a background for an adventure or set the stage for a campaign.

#RPG Thursday – The real prelude Axanar – Star Trek: The Four Years War (FASA Corp., 1986)

Much like the Star Wars Expanded Universe (or, as the hipsters now call it, Legends) the best “source” for your IP-based RPG often is non-canonical. Memory Alpha tells us about The Four Years War:

pic556220This sourcebook was released as a scenario for Star Trek: The Role Playing Game, and used references from several novels and the Spaceflight Chronology (which differs from the more accepted and canon material in the Star Trek Chronology and later Star Trek: The Next Generation– and Star Trek: Enterprise-era productions). Introduced as “a concise compilation of library information on the conflict between the UFP and Klingons, stardates 1/9409 though 1/9806 (in the 2250s).” This was originally released as a set with book #2218, Return to Axanar.

It’s really a shame that The Four Years War (FASA Corp, 1986) is not Star Trek canon because the book is an awesome piece of gaming literature; a wonderful marriage of role-playing sourcebook and wargame campaign.

It’s sometimes hard to imagine that Star Trek was not always the powerhouse IP that it is today. Growing up in the late 1970’s all one got was reruns of the original series confined to syndicated television on UHF channels (if you don’t know what I mean by that, well, you just showed your age). In the gaming world, however, Star Trek was an IP that even small game companies could go after. In the wargame world it was Task Force Games with Star Fleet Battles (Task Force Games, 1977+); in the RPG world it was FASA Corporation and their Star Trek: The Role Playing Game (FASA Corporation, 1982-1989). I played both Star Fleet Battles (SFB) and Star Trek: The Role Playing Game (STRPG). As a wargamer, I got heavily into SFB but I didn’t go as deep into STRPG in part because I was a heavy Traveller RPG player.

At the time the first SFB and STRPG came out, the “canon” of Star Trek was still ill-defined. SFB based itself on The Original Series, Animated Trek, and most importantly Franz Josef’s Star Fleet Technical Manual. Unlike SFB, the authors of STRPG were able to incorporate elements of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), and eventually even more into their game while still creating new and original content. They created content until the great Paramount evil took back control of their IP. The designer’s notes in The Klingons Sourcebook actually tells us a great deal about the latitude the game authors had and what they were able to do with it.

A great example of this latitude and new content is The Four Years War. Reading through this collection of library entries, one learns not only about the military timeline, equipment, and tactics of the war but also the social, political, and economic factors of the day. The book is chock-full of inspiration not only for battles or military campaigns, but also background and plot seeds for a really interesting RPG adventure. There is enough here to ensure that the adventure doesn’t have to be a military campaign; there are many different seeds here to make something far more interesting.

The book is broken up into seven major sections. Within each are several “entries” that deliver the informationin small, really “bite-size” fragments. I especially like that competing viewpoints are included, like “UFB Military Background” and “UFP Military Background – A Criticism” or “Klingon Strategy” and “Klingon Strategy – A New Theory.” These multiple viewpoints engage the GM to design scenarios without a straitjacket interpretation of the situation already laid out by a lawyer from Southern California.

Not only does The Four Years War provide setting material for Star Trek: The Role Playing Game but it feeds other portions of the FASA STRPG product line. Entries like “Consequences for Military Shipbuilding Theory” help one design new ships in the game. If one has the companion Star Trek: Starship Tactical Combat Simulator (FASA Corp, 1983) then the entire section on Starship Tactics is for you.

Resurrected Starships on YouTube has made a video explanation of The Four Years War. Check it out and tell me what you think!


Feature image Return to Axanar and The Four Years War set from waynesbooks.net

#RPG Thursday – Kickstarting my thinking about #CORTEX (@sethMVDS, 2019?)

Long ago, that is, in May 2017, I pledged on Kickstarter my support to Cortex Prime: A Multi-Genre Modular Roleplaying Game. The estimated delivery date was April…2018. In the past year I have mostly forgotten about my pledge. In fact, I have mostly forgotten about RPGs in general as my hobby gaming has focused mostly on wargames and then family boardgames. However, the most recent update (March 2019) has stirred my imagination.

I readily admit I am not the usual RPG player. I tend to focus almost exclusively on science-fiction roleplaying and avoid fantasy like plague. I have dabbled a bit in modern RPGs and steampunk or similar settings but true sci-fi is where my heart is.

Over the years, I have also come to pay much more attention to game mechanics; in some ways mechanics wins out over settings for me. Thus, as I skimmed through the draft CORTEX PRIME GAME HANDBOOK I was reminded why I like the core mechanic used in CORTEX PRIME. For every test or contest, you assemble your dice pool and roll against the opposition pool. You choose which two dice will be your total while a third die is the effect die. Rolling a 1 is a spoiler; too many spoilers become a botch!

Like Genesys or Star Wars Roleplaying Game, winning a test or contest allows you to narrate the outcome. This narrative control is very important to me; I don’t want the GM to be the only one talking.

pic1978226_t
Courtesy RPGGeek

I have several played and studied several implementations of the Cortex System. I have seen it evolve from Cortex Classic in Serenity (2005) to Battlestar Galactica (2007) to Cortex Plus used by Smallville (2010) to Marvel Heroic Roleplaying (2012) to Firefly (2014). I have a love for each version (yes, even the soap operatic Smallville can teach aspiring GMs something). But I am ready for the next generation of CORTEX PRIME.

Deep inside, I am asking myself why I am anxious. After all, I have the very similar (and heavily narrative) Genesys, right? It was a bit of a disappointment, yes? At heart, I really enjoy the (somewhat unnarrative) Cepheus Engine RPG and especially The Clement Sector setting. Do I really expect CORTEX PRIME to be different?

Maybe. Hopefully I will find out for sure. This year.


Feature image CORTEX logo courtesy RPGGeek.com

#RPGThursday – 70’s Art for RPG Inspiration

I first started playing RPGs in the late 1970’s. You know, that time of early computer graphics. Even after all these years, I still find science fiction art from that time much more inspirational than the septic, functional style seem so much today. While the modern artwork is often more grounded in reality, I prefer the fantastical whimsy of the past as my RPG inspiration.

Take for instance the feature image above by by David Metzer which was used as a cover for Michael Moorcock’s The Warlord of the Air. From a modern perspective, I think many people would call this art fantasy, not science fiction. From rocket-ship airships to weirdly swept wing craft there is so much unreal here.

Which is exactly why it works for me.

As a long-time Classic Traveller RPG player and a more recent apostle of the Cepheus Engine System, I instantly things that make me look to create a backstory to explain what is happening here. What sort of planet supports this kind of transportation? What Tech Level is shown? What is the political situation? Are the player characters on the rocket-blimps or the sweeping fighters? Why are they there?

Or this scene, a six-panel gatefold cover of Space Hymns by Ramases (1971) created by Roger Dean:

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Courtesy @70sscifiart

Looks like a cathedral tower that is actually a rocket ship. Again my mind races with questions; how did a cathedral come to be built around a starship? How long has it been there? Who has been keeping this secret? What happened that they need to leave now? Are the PCs aboard the ship or are they now chasing it across the cosmos?

Sorry, much of the modern sci-fi “art” just doesn’t do the same for me. How about you?


Feature image courtesy @70sscifiart

#RPGThursday – Generic Genesys (@FFGames,2017)

LET IT BE SAID that I absolutely love the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Core Rulebook (Fantasy Flight Games, 2013). It is by far the best implementation of the Narrative Dice System, although I may be biased because I also love Star Wars (not “A New Hope”) in the original trilogy. I own all three FFG Star Wars core rulebooks but want to explore the system sans the Star Wars setting. In 2017, FFG released Genesys: The Roleplaying Game for All Settings. I didn’t pick it up until sometime in 2018. I immediately read through it from cover to cover.

It has sat on my shelf – untouched – since.

You see, I really wanted to use the Narrative Dice System and make my own setting. I like the whole idea of using the dice to tell a story where there is triumph or despair and shades of success, or failure, in between. Or maybe use it to create a conversion of a setting. Genesys seems perfect for those needs; and that’s the problem.

Genesys is a wonderful toolbox. Everything one needs is in the book to make a setting of your own. At least a generic version. Want to create a character? The rules for creating a character are here; the bare bones so to speak, but none of the flesh. That you have to provide yourself. The same goes for Skills and Talents. Using generic skills is perfectly acceptable but to really make a setting your own one needs to invest a great deal of effort into creating evocative Talents. Again, the generic is here, but more is needed.

Part II of the Genesys core rulebook is Settings. Note the plural, for in the book you get ideas for fantasy, steampunk, modern day, science fiction, and space opera. These ideas are more like advertisements for settings that FFG might eventually release. It’s all fluff with little to actually use.

Part III: Game Master’s Toolkit tries to be more helpful. There is design advice in here for creating a skill or archtype or species or an item or an adversary. Design advice that digs deeper into the Narrative Dice System and how to “pull the levers” of the game engine. That is, if you’re a system engineer.

In the end, I believe Genesys succeeds even as it fails. It definitely is a generic toolkit for making an RPG setting. Problem is, it’s too generic. In the end, I find myself going back to Edge of the Empire and using that because it ends up being what I want in my science fiction RPG. Genesys has shown me just how good that setting is, and how it’s going to be too difficult to make my own that will probably end up being 90% what Edge of the Empire already is. If I want to be an RPG system engineer then Genesys is the basic toolbox. Be warned though, to make it your own will be a much deeper investment.

#RPGThursday – SOLO (Zozer Games, 2017) & Cepheus Light (Stellagama Publishing, 2018)

“Jerks.”

Vase had said it under his breathe, but it came through Rand’s earpiece clearly. “Yes, jerks,” he thought. This was supposed to be a friendly meeting. Now he and Tercel were trying to ease their way out of the dive bar before anyone noticed that their “friend” was bleeding from a small dart wound in the forehead. Rand had heard the sharp whistle of the dart pass his ear at the same time the small hole opened. Fortunately, the contact had already passed the small package over to Tercel. Now they just had to get back to the ship. And off planet. And past the space patrol.

And it was only Tooday.

pic3458792_mdTaking my intrepid Cepheus Light adventures, I opened up SOLO: Solo RPG Campaigns for the Cepheus Engine (Zozer Games, 2017) to try to get my adventure going. SOLO starts in Media Res and the random roll set up the situation as above. It was a good, if somewhat predictable, “trope-ish” start to the campaign.

The SOLO rules also give some focus to character relationships. I had already started to explore these aspects, with the differences in “opinion” between Rand and Tercel. Now I have a few more relationships and motivations to play off of. Like, why does Rand owe that Crime Lord so much? Hmm….

To support the campaign, I need a subsector map. Using the rules in Cepheus Light, I rolled up a random subsector with 36 worlds. I am now in the process of fleshing out the Universal World Profile (UWP) for all those planets. There is at least one computer app out there that could do this for me automatically but there is something special about rolling the dice, watching the profile fill out, and starting to imagine what it means. One of the first planets I rolled up was a Captive Government, which immediately got me wondering, “captive to who?” Another planet? A corporation?  I don’t know, and probably won’t have a better idea until I get the planets within a Jump-2 radius determined. Already the ideas have started to grow….

This is the magic of the Traveller RPG universe; magic that Cepheus Light makes easy and simple to use.

Feature image courtesy spreadshirt.com

#RPGThursday – Top 3 TTRPG?

Was challenged on Twitter to name my Top 3 Tabletop Role Playing Games. Here was my response:

Each of these titles is starkly different from the other. One is old/new, one very old school, and the third a modern narrative system. How did I arrive at this list?

Starting in 2004 and continuing through the mid 20-teens, I focused my hobby hours more heavily into RPGs than wargaming and boardgaming. In part this was because I was in the military and on the move with most of my gaming collection stored away. The electronic revolution in RPGs was just starting so instead of buying physical books I could get a whole library on my computer! I also had younger kids who were not ready to game yet. In those years, I dabbled in a lot of RPG systems, especially newer ones such as CORTEX Classic (Serenity Role Playing Game, Battlestar Galactica Role Playing Game) that evolved into CORTEX Plus (Smallville Roleplaying Game, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game, and Firefly Roleplaying Game). I dug deeply into FATE with great games like the encyclopedic Starblazer Adventures or Diaspora. There were many other games too. Looking back, I had become a “mechanics nut” and explored different RPG systems to study their mechanics, or how they modeled the world. I didn’t really play many of these games as much as I studied them.

During this study time, I took another look at the James Bond 007 roleplaying game. I came to realize that this game had a near-perfect marriage of theme and mechanics.

In 2013 my gaming took an unexpected turn. That year, Fantasy Flight Games acquired the Star Wars license and produced their excellent Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Core Rulebook. The RockyMountainNavy Boys were now older and I had done a good job of indoctrinating them into the Cult of Star Wars. So we started playing together. This was a major change for me since I now started playing games instead of mostly studying them.

As I started playing games more, I fell back on a classic of my youth. The three Little Black Books of (now) Classic Traveller had always been a favorite of mine. Now there was something different; a revival of sorts in the form of third-party publishers like Gypsy Knights Games with their incredible The Clement Sector ATU. Since 2013 I have stuck with the newer Traveller as it evolved into Cepheus Engine. It remains my favorite.

So that is how I arrived at my Top 3. The first is a classic of my youth, updated and recreated into the modern day. The second is a design I admire. The third is loved because it connects me to my Boys.

#RPGThursday – A Fifth of 21 Plots Comes Forth

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Courtesy RPGGeek

A Fifth of 21 Plots, Gypsy Knights Games, 2017.

A Fifth of 21 Plots is the latest entry of patron encounters for Gypsy Knight Games’ The Clement Sector setting using the Cepheus Engine RPG system. Provided within are 21 encounters each in the classic Traveller RPG patron encounter format which gives a short introduction and a 1d6 table for random variation.

Before The Clement Sector, I had not bought any patron encounter books since the Classic Traveller RPG Supplement 06: 76 Patrons. I have to admit I have now bought nearly all the Gypsy Knight Games 21 Series because it is so inspirational. Shamefully, I don’t often use a patron encounter in my gaming (unless it is a real pick-up game) but instead use the encounter background and variations as inspiration for detailing an adventure.

This may change thanks to the index for the 21 Series of plots that is provided in this product. The index is cross-referenced according to location, themes, organizations, corporations, and objects within the plots (A Fifth of 21 Plots, p. 26). I don’t necessarily see this as a tool the GM will use at the table, but it should be very useful for gaming prep and will probably result in my incorporation of more of the 21 Series plots into my adventuring.

A Fifth of 21 Plots is a very functional product; there are only three pieces of “poser” art included. The bulk the content is the 21 Plots (each on a separate page) and the index which takes up the second half of the 45-page product. My only gripe is the same one I have for many pdf books – the page numbering and pdf are not synchronized meaning the last page of the pdf (p. 45) is labeled p. 44 in the product (the cover – usually unnumbered – counts as a pdf page). This a very minor gripe – the content is excellent with great plot seeds and good writing.

RMN Verdict – BUY for the index and enjoy the adventures!

#RPGThursday – Heavy Hover Tank Design for #CepheusEngine RPG

hammersslammers
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40927431

I absolutely love David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers series of military science fiction stories. I was so excited when Mongoose Publishing rolled out a Hammer’s Slammers supplement for Mongoose Traveller First Edition (MgT1E). Unfortunately, Mongoose did a very amateur job, demonstrating they really don’t understand the military and leaving us consumers with a poor product. Mongoose claimed that all the vehicles were created with the Traveller Vehicle Creation System and were supposed to be fully compatible with every other Traveller books. NOT SO!

The Cepheus Engine Vehicle Design System is Cepheus Engine RPG successor to The Vehicle Handbook for MgT1E. I have had the CEVDS for a while now and decided to try to recreate something close to a Slammer’s hover tank.

TL-12 Heavy Plasma Hover Tank

Using a closed 5-ton chassis (3 Hull, 3 Structure), Armor 25, the Heavy Plasma Hover Tank is a main battle tank. It has the Hostile Environmental Protections System. It carries a Fusion power plant, Code K, and a hover propulsion system, Code K, giving it a top speed of 150kph, a cruising speed of 112 kph, and an Agility DM of +1. Three kiloliters of hydrogen support the power plant for 1 week of use. This vehicle is equipped with the Advanced Vehicle Control System, Class II Laser Comms (LOS or 50 km), Basic Military Sensors (-2), and a Model 2 computer. There is a Basic Cockpit for the Driver and a Standard Seat for the Gunner/Tank Commander. The vehicle has one weapon points. A large, heavy turret carries a TL-12 Rapid Fire Plasma Gun. Cargo capacity is 7 spaces. The chassis is armored with Superdense (x5). It also mounts an Explosive Belt. The vehicle costs 690.12 KCr and takes 1,125 hours or 47 days to build.

Category

Component

Spaces

Price (Cr)

Notes

Chassis Base

60

7800

Code 9
Configuration Closed
Armor

-15

7800

Superdense (Armor x5)
Reinforced Hull

11200

Hull +2
Reinforced Structure Structure +2
Power Plant Fusion

-3

4500

Code K
Propulsion Air Cushion

-4.5

112500

Code K
Fuel Hydrogen

-3

120

Fuel Capacity = 1 Week
Controls Advanced

-2

10000

Agility +1
Communications Class II Laser

-0.04

3000

Laser LOS/Very Distant (50 km)
Sensors Basic Military

-12

20000

Comms DM 0, Very Distant (50 km)
Computer Model 2

1000

Options

500

Hardened
Accommodations Basic Cockpit

-2

1000

Driver
Standard Seat

-2

1000

Gunner/Commander
Armaments Turret (Large Heavy)

-3

93000

Rapid Pulse Plasma Cannon – TL-12

-3

90000

ROF 1/6, 12d6 Dmg
Explosive Belt

15000

Cargo

-7.1

TOTALS

0

690120

Total time to create this design was about 30 minutes. This is still a lot more time that a GM wants to take to create a vehicle at the table, but fine for a prep session. The design is not a Slammer’s blower tank – it doesn’t have a powergun nor the armor to match. But it was a good exercise of the CEVDS and an encouraging start to designing vehicles for Cepheus Engine RPG adventuring.