#Wargame Wednesday – Rolling Hot like a Tanklord in different Hammer’s Slammers games featuring #TravellerRPG and Game Designers’ Workshop, Metagaming, @mayfairgames, @MongoosePub, & www.hammers-slammers.com – all for @TheGascon

Thank Gascon

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.

Incoming—@TheGascon turns the BlogZ Hot

Rolling Hot

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.


Rolling Hot, (c) 1986 by David Drake

Rolling Hot

“But Loyal to His Own”

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.


Classic Traveller Role Playing Game (i.e. “The Little Black Books”), (c) 1977 Game Designers’ Workshop

The Little Black Books of Classic Traveller

Book 4: Mercenary, (c) 1978 Game Designers’ Workshop

Striker, designed by Frank Chadwick, (c) 1981 Game Designers’ Workshop

Ogre, designed by Steve Jackson, (c) 1977 Metagaming

G.E.V., designed by Steve Jackson, (c) 1978 Metagaming

Helltank, designed by Phillip S. Kosnett, (c) 1981 Metagaming

Helltank Destroyer, designed by Phillip S. Kosnett, (c) 1982 Metagaming


“Supertanks”

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.


Hammers Slammer’s, designed by Jim Griffin, H. N. Voss, Neil Zimmerer, (c) 1984 Mayfair Games

Mayfair Games Hammer’s SlammersPanzerBlitz in Spaaaace?

“Night March”

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.


Striker II, designed by Frank Chadwick, (c) 1993 Game Designers’ Workshop

Dirtside II, designed by Jon Tuffley & Mike Elliot, (c) 1993 Ground Zero Games

Dirtside II from Ground Zero Games

Stargrunt II, designed by Jon Tuffley, Mike Elliot, and Steve Bease, (c) 1996 Ground Zero Games


“Hangman”

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).

“Got Your Powergun?” Feb 11, 2011

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.


Book 1: Mercenary, (c) 2008 Mongoose Publishing

Hammer’s Slammers, (c) 2009 Mongoose Publishing

Mongoose Traveller Hammer’s Slammers

“The Tank Lords”

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.


Hammer’s Slammers Handbook, (c) 2004 Pireme Publishing Ltd.

Hammer’s Slammers: The Crucible, (c) 2010 Pireme Publishing Ltd.

The Ultimate—Hammer’s Slammers: The Crucible

“Caught in the Crossfire”

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.


Tomorrow’s War (Second Edition), designed by Shawn Carpenter, Robby Carpenter, (c) 2011 Osprey Publishing

Tomorrow’s War = Infantry First

“Standing Down”

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

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

In a recent post I discussed my search for a #TravellerRPG wargame for use in ground combat. In the course of that posting, I talked about several different wargames and what I liked, or didn’t like, about them. Since I started down that rabbit hole, I decided to dig a bit further by taking a deeper look back at the original personal and vehicle combat systems for roleplaying games from the Classic Traveller-era (1977-1981). Along the way I discovered:

  • I didn’t remember as many things about early Traveller as I thought I did
  • There is more variety to the systems than I remember
  • Technology plays a much lesser mechanical role then I remember.

The Traveller Combat System

When I started my review, I immediately discovered there is not one single “Traveller Combat System” though, as you will see, there is a something called the Traveller Combat System. Indeed, between 1977 and 1981, Game Designers’ Workshop (GDW) gave us EIGHT (8) different ground combat systems. Broadly speaking, I see the eight systems divided into two broad categories; Strategic and Personal/Tactical. The eight systems, many found within their own game, are:

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

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

In this post I’m going to look at the five Personal/Tactical combat systems for the Traveller roleplaying game. A later post will look at the strategic systems. For now, let’s go back to the beginnings of the RPG hobby, and a little corner of Indiana with a group calling themselves Game Designers’ Workshop (and pay attention to where the apostrophe is placed).

Personal / Tactical Systems

The original Traveller

The Little Black Books (1977)

The original rules for the Traveller roleplaying game were laid out in the three Little Black Books first published by GDW in 1977. Book 1: Characters and Combat detailed the first iteration of what came to be known as the “Traveller Combat System.”*

The Traveller Combat System is a combat resolution model for personal combat or what many wargamers often refer to as “skirmish” scale. The system was designed to resolve combat actions between individuals or small groups (like a party of travellers). Each round of combat represented 15 seconds.

I term the Traveller Combat System “semi-abstracted.” The combat procedure in the Traveller Combat System is very simple and straightforward but lacks many usual wargame-like details. In every battle the players and referee step through a simple four-step process:

  • Determine surprise
  • Determine initial range
  • Determine escape/avoidance
  • Resolve combat wherein each character declares both a movement status and an attack.

The roll for surprise is subject to several modifiers. I was a bit surprised to see that three of the seven possible modifiers relate to military associated skills – which makes sense given the character generation rules that emphasize military experience. A further three modifiers relate to whether a vehicle is used and the size of the party. The last modifier is for Pouncer animals; very useful in wilderness encounters!

Terrain is a possible modifier for determining range. Encounter distances are broken down into five bands; Close (touching), Short (1-5m), Medium (pistol range, 6-50m), Long (rifle range, 51-250m), and Very Long (extreme range, 251-500m).

Rather than a square or hexagon-gridded map, the Traveller Combat System uses Range Bands. The rules recommend (and I clearly remember using) regular loose leaf lined paper. The number of lines away determines your range. Movement was by bands.

Combat in the Traveller Combat System is based on a simple “Roll 8+ on 2d6 to hit the target.” Die modifiers come in several flavors:

  • Melee Weapons require Strength with strong or weak characters gaining an advantageous or weakened blow modifier
  • Ranged Weapons require Dexterity, again with advantages for high Dexterity characters
  • Using the Weapons Matrix, cross reference the Attacker’s Weapon with the Defender’s Armor yields another DM
  • Using the Range Matrix, each different Attacker’s Weapon yields another DM; this is also where the damage (expressed in number of d6) is found.

Wounds in the Traveller Combat System are determined by different number of d6. The total of the first hit is applied to one personal characteristic and can be enough to render the character unconscious. After the first hit, the dice in subsequent attacks are spread out over the Strength-Dexterity-Endurance characteristics (i.e. if your attack scores 2d6 hits, the total of die #1 can be applied to one characteristic and the total of die #2 to another). When a single characteristic drops to zero the character is unconscious. When two are reduced the character is seriously wounded and if all three go to zero the character is killed. Bottom Line: The Traveller Combat System is DEADLY.

In keeping with the personal combat focus of the Traveller Combat System, the personal characteristics of strength, dexterity, and endurance are very important in combat. As already mentioned, strength and dexterity grant a bonus, or penalty, in combat. Endurance is essential in melee combat; every “blow” takes endurance. Once all your endurance is gone no more blows are possible until after a rest period.

Character skills also factor in the Traveller Combat System. Knowing how to use a weapon grants a bonus (with more skill granting a bigger bonus); untrained is a penalty. Expertise is also used to parry in brawling or blade combat.

One rule I did not remember in the Traveller Combat System is morale. Basically, when at least 20% of the party is unconscious or killed, you must start making morale throws. Failure means the party breaks and runs. I absolutely do not remember this rule; I think we ignored it because it took away player agency. Or maybe we just didn’t use it because the combat system is already deadly enough that we didn’t get into combat unless we were very sure of ourselves.

I also notice now that there is no vehicle combat rules in Book 1. A party can be in a vehicle at the start of combat, but there are no rules for fighting vehicle to vehicle.

Mercenary (1978)

In 1978, GDW published what nowadays we would call a splatbook for mercenary characters. Not only did Classic Traveller Book 4: Mercenary include expanded character generation rules, it also included new combat rules. Actually, it makes references to three different rules systems:

There are three means of resolving a mercenary mission: the standard Traveller adventure/combat system, the abstract system included later in this section, and a free-form system created by the referee. All three are discussed to a greater or lesser extent, but it should be born in mind that these are intended only as a general guide to the referee, not as a definitive miniatures rules set.

Book 4: Mercenary, “Battles”, p. 31

When introducing the Abstract System, the designers tell us, “The abstract mission resolution system is particularly valuable in resolving a mercenary mission involving large numbers of troops on one or both sides and in which player characters are not primary participants (serving as NCOs in an infantry battalion, for example).” It is telling that the Abstract System has no time or distance scale; it has all been abstracted out.

Combat resolution using the Abstract System in conducted in two broad parts: preparation and resolution. During preparation, the characteristics of the opposing forces is determined, to include the Mission, Tech Level, Size of the force, and Efficiency. This is accomplished through a series of die rolls. At this point the referee also needs to determine a preservation number for the force.

Once the two sides are prepared, the Abstract System moves to resolution. Once again, a series of die rolls determines the Element Engaged, the Encounter Type and then the actual Combat Resolution. Given the involvement of player characters, there is also a chance of Personal Casualties which is addressed at this point.

Although I call the Mercenary Abstract System a tactical-level battle system, the reality is a bit fuzzy. The size of the force and element engaged can range from a Fire Team nominally of four soldiers up to an entire Brigade of 1500 troops.

The Abstract System lives up to its name; it is highly abstracted to the point all the tables necessary for preparation and resolution are on one digest-sized page in Book 4. The combat results table is actually a Firing Matrix where the firing unit is cross-referenced with the Target Unit to get a die roll modifier (DM). At this point, the Tech Level difference of the two units is used as a +/- DM. Casualties are expressed in percentage of the force with personal casualties dependent upon how much of the force was put out of action. The battle continues in rounds until one side or the other reaches its preservation level and withdraws.

When it comes to vehicle combat, Mercenary is very silent on the issue. Like the Traveller Combat System, no vehicle combat rules are provided. The closest Book 4 comes is a discussion of military vehicles at different tech levels.

Snapshot (1979)

The next personal combat system in the Traveller universe is Snapshot: Close Combat Aboard Starships in the Far Future. The title alone should tell you the focus here; combat between individuals within the closed confines of starships. The rules even go so far as to state they are not intended for outdoor encounters or ranges greater than 50-60 meters.

In order to make Snapshot work, GDW uses the same 15 second rounds but instead of the range bands in the Traveller Combat System they introduce a square grid. Each grid square is 1.5m, conveniently the same scale used to draw starship deck plans. With the introduction of grid squares, many other wargame-like rules are introduced. There now are stacking limits and facing considerations.

Instead of the move/attack action in the Traveller Combat System, in Snapshot each character is allotted a number of Action Points (AP) equal to the sum of their Endurance and Dexterity (with a minimum of six). Every action has a different AP cost. This is where one of my favorite wargame rules, The Expletive, is found.

“Frak you!”

Combat resolution in Snapshot is virtually identical to the Traveller Combat System except the separate Weapons and Range Matrix tables is collapse into one table. Wounding is the same with hits being applied against personal characteristics.

Snapshot, being focused on close encounters aboard ships, has no vehicle combat rules.

Azhanti High Lightning

Azhanti High Lightning (1980)

The next combat system GDW gives us for Traveller is Azhanti High Lightning (AHL). AHL is both a sourcebook on a class of ships and a new combat game. It is a further progression of the Traveller Combat System and Snapshot. Like Snapshot, each combat round in AHL is 15 seconds and each square is the same 1.5m.

The major evolution of the AHL system is that each turn now consists of multiple action phases instead of the single action phase in Snapshot. In the Decision Phase the player secretly determines what the “strategy” of the turn will be: cover fire, aim, or move. Like Snapshot, players have AP to spend, but unlike Snapshot where the AP is determined by the sum of characteristics in AHL each character has a flat 6 AP in each of the five action phases.

The second major evolution in AHL is the combat system. The Weapons Table divides range into Effective, Long, and Extreme ranges each with its own base to-hit number. In many ways this new Weapons Table “builds in” many previous die roll modifiers. However, once a hit is made the resolution system from that point forward totally changes from pervious versions.

In AHL, once a hit is made you check the damage table. This die roll is modified by the Penetration Value of the weapon and any cover or armor for the target. Instead of applying damage to characteristics, wounds are described as Light, Serious, or Death with unconsciousness also possible. A new Melee combat system is also introduced using Melee Ratings of combatants.

Rules for integrating AHL with Traveller are provided. The formula for a Melee Rating is given, as well as other special rules about Danger Space for weapons. Interestingly, no skills are used as modifiers in AHL; here skill is subsumed into a single weapons skill rating on a counter. Morale and leadership bonuses are generated using the Mercenary system.

Again, I was very surprised to discover that AHL has no vehicle combat rules.

Striker (1981)

Striker (1981)

To understand what Striker represents to Traveller players, I think it is worth quoting the introduction at length:

Striker is a set of rules for science fiction ground combat using 15mm miniature figures. each player will command a force ranging from a platoon to several companies, consisting of a few dozen to over a hundred men, plus artillery, armored vehicles, and aircraft. The rules are intended to be easy for the beginning player to understand wile at the same time providing a comprehensive and detailed treatment of ground combat from the beginning of this century to the far future.

On important aspect in which Striker differs from previous miniatures rules is the role assigned to the player. In most games, a player simultaneously plays the role of every member of a military unit; no orders need to be given, and every man performs as the player likes. In Striker, realistic limitations have been put on the abilities of officers to command their units. Giving orders to subordinates is a time-consuming process; commanders will find it advisable to devise a simple plan and to give most orders in pre-battle briefings. Changes to this plan in the heat of action will be difficult except through on the spot leadership. For a more detailed discussion of this point, read Firefight, at the beginning of section II of this book.

The science fiction background of Striker is drawn from the universe of Traveller. All weapons and military technology described in Traveller (including Book 4, Mercenary) are included in Striker. These rules may be used in conjunction with Traveller or by themselves; no familiarity with Traveller is required.

In Striker, as in Traveller, technology is rated by tech levels; these rules cover weapons and equipment ranging from tech level 5 (about World War I) to tech level 15 (the level of Traveller’s Imperium). Present-day earth is about tech level 7.

Striker, Book 1: Basic Rules, “Introduction,” p. 4

Striker changed scales yet again, with each turn now representing 30 seconds and one millimeter on the table equaling 1 meter. Units are described principally by their morale (Recruit-Regular-Veteran-Elite) and an initiative rating. The sequence of play moved closer to a classic wargame with a Command Phase followed by First Player Movement – First Player Fire then Second Player Movement – Second Player Fire with a Panic Morale Check Phase at the end. As befits the core focus, command, communications, and morale all factor prominently in what a unit can, or cannot, do.

Instead of Action Points, units in Striker are assigned orders. The number of orders and how long it takes to communicate them are the heart of the command and communications rules. A single order can consist of three components: movement, fire, and a rally point. For example, an order might be, “Move to the crest of Hill 17, through the forest, at fastest speed. Fire at enemy units detected. Rally Point: Little Star crossroads.”

Fire combat in Striker is an evolution of the AHL system. Hits cause casualties (Light-Serious-Destroyed) like in AHL, but in Striker the impact to morale is also considered. Morale checks are made when proximate to an enemy, when taking casualties, or if a unit routed nearby (to avoid panic). Four different results of a failed morale check are possible: Suppressed, Fall Back, Forced Back, and Routed. Surrender is also possible.

I was absolutely dumbfounded to realize that it was not until the publication of Striker in 1981 that vehicle combat officially came to the Traveller RPG universe. The system is interesting; when shooting at a vehicle the firing player declares either a “high” (vs turret) or “low” (vs hull) shot. The angle of attack is also considered. After that the fire procedure is basically the same as any other combat in Striker.

[I went back and looked to see where vehicle combat may have had a start pre-Striker. I found the Judges Guild product Lazer Tank (1980) that has a very simple vehicle combat system but is unlike anything anywhere else in Traveller. I also identified vehicle rules in the Amber Zone article “Pursue and Destroy” from Issue 7 of the Journal of the Traveller’s Aid Society. This article, published in 1981 from Frank Chadwick, apparently still predates his Striker rules as it refers to using Mercenary and Azhanti High Lightning to resolve combat. A methodology for converting AHL wound levels to vehicle damage is provided. The first published adventure to feature the chance of vehicle combat is Adventure 7: Broadsword that was published in 1982 and recommends using Book 1, Mercenary, and Striker.]

Striker also includes sections describing Planetary Defenses (Book 2: Equipment, Rule 76: Planetary Defenses) as well as Rule 77: Jump Troops. Rule 79 is Integration with Mercenary while Rule 80 is Integration with Traveller. Both focus on skills or the impact of morale and changes necessary to move between different wound systems.

However, it is the Vehicle Design Sequence that truly sets Striker apart from its predecessors. This “game within a game” aimed squarely at Traveller “systems engineers” is the foundation of every vehicle design system used since in the Traveller universe. Here is a methodology to create a vehicle that is described in common game terms and comparable across multiple tech levels. Truly an astonishing achievement.

Which One Should I Use?

When I look back on the history of personal/tactical ground combat systems for Traveller, I don’t look at it pessimistically and see too many choices. Instead I am ever the optimist and see many good choices that as a referee I can mix and match to my hearts content.

I love the Traveller Combat System. It is the most pure and simple, and probably the most supportive of good narrative play. The rules are super light and easy.

The Abstract System from Mercenary is good for “background” action. It can also be the primary system for resolving mercenary tickets if the players are running a mercenary company.

Snapshot and Azhanti High Lightning are good at what their focus is; shipboard combat. Comparing them, Snapshot is more RPG-like whereas AHL is more “wargame-y.” What I mean here is Snapshot, with action points determined by characteristics, is closer to the RPG but Azhanti High Lightning is the more refined rules set.

Since forever, I always assumed that Striker was the miniatures rules set for the Traveller roleplaying game. Reading the introduction, Traveller does not get mentioned until paragraph three. Instead, what we actually have in our possession is a set of miniatures rules for 15mm figures suitable for playing out small scale/unit actions with a set of rules that allow one to simultaneously employ multiple levels of technology. As important a role technology plays, the true focus of the game is actually on Command and the ability of leaders to communicate and coordinate on the battlefield. This makes Striker the most “wargame-y” of the group. As I already mentioned, the vehicle design system is a truly foundational part of the Traveller universe. However, the focus on command and not characters makes Striker’s use in a Traveller campaign a bit questionable.

When I look back on the history of personal/tactical ground combat systems for Traveller, I don’t look at it pessimistically and see too many choices. Instead I am ever the optimist and see many good choices that as a referee I can mix and match to my hearts content.

RockyMountainNavy, Dec 2020

I also note that the vehicle combat rules found in the modern Cepheus Engine version of the Original 2d6 Science Fiction Roleplaying Game did not appear in the early years of the GDW era. The Striker -based rules were still in use through at least 1994 when Striker II: Miniatures Warfare in the Far Future was published as part of Traveller: The New Era. The modern rules for vehicle combat use the same “actions” approach of personal combat in Cepheus Engine where each crew member gets one significant and two minor actions in a combat round (six seconds of time). I’m not absolutely sure, but this mechanic may have first appeared in the Mongoose Traveller 1st Edition published in 2008.

JTAS 9

JTAS Journey

I also found it interesting to look at what happened to these games after publication. Looking through the first 24 issues of the Journal of the Traveller’s Aid Society (JTAS) brought some further enlightenment.

JTAS 2 (1979)

This issue contains a very interesting rebuttal to an article in the June 1979 issue of The Dragon. JTAS editor Loren K. Wiseman responds to criticism of Mercenary with the comment, “To criticize a set of rules or a game because it has omitted some vital aspect of its subject matter is one thing, but to downgrade rules because they do not cover something beyond their scope is a little like saying ‘Squad Leader is a fairly good game, but I would have liked to have more air-to-air combat in it.'”

JTAS 12 (1981)

This issue had two Striker-related articles; “Striker Errata” and “Strike it Rich” where author J. Andrew Keith talks about using Striker as a new combat system or as a valuable source book.

JTAS 14 (1982)

Articles include “Civilian Vehicles for Striker” and “Foxhound” by J.D Webster (later famous for his Fighting Wings series of air combat wargames). “Foxhound” is billed as a Striker variant but a close reading reveals this is really a system for fitting flying vehicles into the Traveller Combat System, especially since it uses the same range bands. That said, weapons fire uses Striker….

JTAS 16 (1983)

Contributor Michael Wharton serves up “Merging the Striker and Traveller Combat Systems.” He focuses on converting the Striker damage levels to the point system of Traveller and adjusting Striker “to hit” at short ranges. During the course of the article, he hits on the major difference between Striker and the Traveller Combat System:

By its own admission, Striker is designed to deal with fairly large scale actions fought at moderate-to-long ranges. At the short ranges of many Traveller firefights, however, confined as they often are within starships or barrooms, the Striker hit determination tables become somewhat unrealistic. That an 8+ is required to hit a target only two meters away seems unlikely. Also, the difficulty of using long arms at very short range is not addressed.

“Merging the Striker and Traveller Combat Systems,” JTAS 16, p. 43

JTAS 17 (1983)

Both feature articles in this issue are for ground-pounders (almost). “Air Strike: A Close Air Support Rules Module for Mercenary” by T. McInnes provides what I call a very loose set of rules for integrating air support into the Abstract System. The second article, “Hunting Bugs: Striker Meets Horde” by John Marshall explains how to use Striker when playing Double Adventure 5: The Chamax Plague/Horde. Hmm…

JTAS 21 (1984)

The feature article, “Striker Weapons Systems Analysis,” does not appear in the Table of Contents. Some useful design notes to consider here but nothing really in the way of combat rules mechanics.

JTAS 22 (1985)

Two feature articles are included. The first, “‘Til They Glow in the Dark: Nukes for Traveller/Striker Campaigns” seems out of place for the Traveller default setting when one considers the Imperial Rules of War that forbid the usage of nukes. I guess this article can support alternate Traveller universes. The second article, “Seastrike – Underwater Combat in Traveller” mixes Striker with the ship design system High Guard.

JTAS 23 (1985)

Whoops! Forgot to print the “Striker Expanded Nuclear Warheads List” in issue 22. Here it is!


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

Feature image courtesy Ian Stead

#Wargame Wednesday – Getting slammed by Mongoose Traveller’s Hammer’s Slammers vehicle combat for #CepheusEngine #TravellerRPG

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.

Combatting Traveller

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.

Striker from GDW

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.

Striker II (GDW, 1994)

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).*

Last Battle: Twilight 2000 (GDW)

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.

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.

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!

Mongoose Traveller Hammer’s Slammers (2009)

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).

In the example above I hope you can see that Pritchard’s tank is proof against the deadly “tank killer.” It’s also going to take another hit, or two or three more, to finally destroy the Black Skorpion. It all seems very undramatic. I even tried to recreate the epic final battle from Rolling Hot where Task Force Ransom takes on 35 Consie light tanks. I couldn’t. That’s because the major problem with the vehicle combat in Mongoose Traveller Hammer’s Slammers is that it doesn’t get the attack vs armor right.

It all seems very undramatic.

“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.

Tomorrow’s War (Ambush Alley/Osprey Publishing)

Following the legal wars over Mongoose Traveller, I fully embraced the Cepheus Engine edition of Traveller. I especially enjoy The Clement Sector setting from John Watts at Independence Games. So far, Cepheus Engine has not published a mass combat set of rules, instead preferring to stay focused on the personal or vehicle combat scale of conflict. Further, no Cepheus Engine publisher has released a set of mass combat or “Battle Scale” rules like those found in the Classic Traveller Book 4: Mercenary or Mongoose Traveller Book 1: Mercenary.

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.

#Wargame Wednesday – Narratives

The Regiment over at the Armchair Dragoons in their Mentioned in Dispatches podcast recently discussed, “Is Wargaming Dead? Or only mostly dead?” (Season 5, Episode 9). It’s a good discussion so I recommend you take the time to listen. At the end Brant asked for community discussion and feedback. As I wasn’t a guest I’m going to use this chance to give you another of my two-cents.

Wargames as Narratives

One part of the podcast I really enjoyed was the discussion of why different games are appealing. One guest offered that some games are more appealing because they are supported by a good story, or narrative. Players often enjoy these games as they build their own narrative story through play.

I started thinking about the connection between narrative and wargames and find it interesting. Listening again to the podcast, I think the guest are discussing how some games are more popular because they build a narrative that the players can immerse themselves in. The example used in the podcast is Battletech. In a game of Battletech, players command giant mechs marching across a future battlefield. In many ways, it is a very personal skirmish game of individual combatants. Battletech is also supported by a very rich canon of background that not only adds color to battles, but often times also helps explain why a confrontation may be occurring. The background often is used to justify certain victory conditions or rules. Players that read and ‘buy into’ the narrative of the Battletech universe are most likely to derive greater enjoyment when playing.

Not all wargames have this same rich background. Indeed, in the realm of historical conflict simulations, the background is often real history. How can wargame narratives help gamers to enjoy a game more?

Very broadly speaking, I think wargames get shortchanged in terms of narrative. Wargames have always told a story. The problem is not that the story is not there, the problem is connecting the story to the player.

Sometimes that story is historical; more often it is alternate history. But before I discuss alternate history, I want to explore how a good wargame narrative can educate, entertain, or inform.

To explore this topic I’m going to first consider two types of wargaming narratives, the Session Report or After Action Report (AAR) and the Story. I’ll then look at the (supposedly) new world of Fictional Intelligence (FICINT) before coming back to alternate history.

Session Reports and AARs – Dramatic?

I have a love/hate relationship with session and after action reports (AAR). All too often I find people use them to clinically report what happens in the war game; i.e. they focus on how the game mechanics play out. This method acts to educate the reader as to how the game operates or how enjoyable it is. To me, that format of a session report or AAR is not a true narrative. I want the game to tell me a story. Finding good examples of such wargame narratives is challenging, but few exist. Here is the one of the best wargame narratives I have ever come across:

Striker in Action: a Firefight

It’s the sort of ticket that you hate: a jerkwater tech 8 world where there hasn’t been a serious fight for forty years, a banana republic without enough money for a standing army, and now a real shooting war. And you’re in the middle of it, as a mercenary cadre for the militia that’s supposed to track down and drive out the other side’s mercenary strikers. It’s the sort of ticket that could get you killed.

You hired on because you were short of cash, needed a job, and know your business. So now you find yourself the commander of a platoon of militia in a sweep through woods tracking down a report of an enemy border incursion. Another platoon is off on your left, but too far away in the dense foliage to be much help in a firefight. In the event of serious trouble, your company’s reserve platoon will back you up; then again, in the event of serious trouble you doubt that your platoon will survive long.

There are forty-one men in your platoon, including yourself and your platoon sergeant. None of them, other than yourself, has ever heard a shot fired in anger, but two of the three squad leaders and your platoon sergeant have been in a long time and seem to know their jobs well. You deploy the platoon in a skirmish line to sweep through the woods on a two squad frontage. You keep them fairly close together, so that verbal orders can be passed down the line and men won’t straggle off. You put the two squad leaders at either end of the line and you walk a couple of meters behind the center. You leave your platoon sergeant with your least reliable squad as a small reserve force about fifty meters behind the line.

Suddenly there’s automatic weapons fire off on the right, the area covered by your first squad. You call the squad leader on your helmet radio to find out what he’s run into.

“Tiger One, this is Tiger Leader. What’s your status, over?” (Tigers: a good example of wishful thinking, you think to yourself.)

“Tiger Leader, this is Tiger One. We’re catching some small caliber autofire from up ahead in the trees. I’ve got some men down here and a couple took off, but I think we’re keeping their heads down, over.”

“OK, Tiger One, hold on. I’m on my way. Tiger Leader to all Tigers. Code X-ray. Acknowledge, over.” You give a codeword you worked out with the squad leaders before moving out, meaning stop the advance and hold in place.

“Tiger Leader, this is Tiger Two. Wilco, over.” That’s second squad on the left flank.

“Tiger Leader, this is Tiger Four. Wilco, over.” That’s your platoon sergeant with the third squad in reserve.

Once the acknowledgements come in and you’re sure there’s been no screw-up, you begin making your way through the undergrowth toward the sound of gunfire. On the way, you make a brief situation report to the company commander on the company radio net.

“Ringleader, this is Tiger Leader. I have a couple hostiles on my right and I’m taking automatic weapons fire. Some casualties already. I’m going to sort things out over there now, over.”

“Roger, Tiger Leader. Do you need help, over?” Help? Probably, but what can Company do right now?

“Negative, Ringleader, but stay on the line. Out.” If you could see anything you could call for fire support from the company mortars that are set up about half a klick to the rear, but by the time you radioed them the fire coordinates, they put rounds near the target, and you adjusted the fire to where you wanted it, you could be commanding an ex-platoon. Or you could have the second squad pivot to the right in line and try to hit the ambush party in flank, but it would take time to explain to these militia men what you wanted them to do, what axis to move out on, what to do once they got where you wanted them, what to expect, probably when to breathe. That takes time, and all of a sudden time is what you don’t have.

Three men from first squad break through the undergrowth, heading for the rear. You yell at them to stop, but they vanish into the undergrowth almost as soon as you see them. You could follow them, stop them, and get them turned around with a quick pep talk, but you’ll probably do more good over on the line with your first squad leader.

“Tiger Four, this is Tiger Leader. Code Olympic. I say again, code Olympic.

Acknowledge, over.” This is the code word to your platoon sergeant to bring the reserve squad up on line. By now you’re thinking ahead, and the reserve squad’s firepower might be handy a little closer to the action, especially if it starts to spread.

Finally you get to first squad, just as the firing dies down. There are just four men remaining out of the thirteen in the squad: the squad leader and three of his troopers. Two men are down with minor wounds and the rest have become separated during the confusion of the firefight. There’s no sign of the hostile troops, and the first squad is visibly shaken. The enemy has withdrawn into the dense woods, and you’re left with the job of putting your platoon back into some sort of order.

You take the first squad in tow and head toward the original center of the platoon’s skirmish line. On the way, you find four of the missing men; after they stopped running, they just sat down and waited for someone to come along and tell them what to do. It figures. There’s no sign of the other three who ran off; they don’t answer a radio hail. Later they will no doubt claim they never heard you.

When you link up with your platoon sergeant and third squad, you give your NCOs a quick briefing on the new platoon formation. First squad goes into reserve with the platoon sergeant, third squad takes the right, second squad stays where it is. When everyone’s on line, you move out.

———————————-

The above action took place in a Striker game, and serves to illuminate the essential nature of the Striker system and how it differs from previous miniatures rules. When attempting to understand these differences, it will help to keep in mind that Striker, as a part of Traveller, has been designed to be, to some extent, a roleplaying game. Miniatures players may initially have difficulties coming to grips with the basic assumptions of Striker, perhaps more so than a role-playing gamer would.

The essential difference is that Striker addresses the problems of battlefield command and control more directly and emphatically than any other rules yet published; actions which would be commonplace in many other miniatures games simply cannot be done in Striker due to the constraints of the command and initiative rules.

Consider, for example, the short action described above. A platoon is moving through dense woods, two squads in line and one in reserve. The righthand squad blunders into an ambush, takes casualties, returns fire, and about two-thirds of the survivors (inexperienced militia) run away. So far, most miniatures rules will produce similar results. It is in the player’s reaction to this that Striker departs from the rest. With most rules systems, the player would begin to move the rest of his platoon in order to bring fire to bear on the ambushers. Assuming that they could reach the area in two turns, they would begin firing at the enemy in the third turn. A brief firefight would ensue, ending with the withdrawal of the ambushers. On about the fifth turn, the platoon would again be moving out, gradually taking up a new formation to compensate for the losses it had sustained. The emphasis is on the actions of the platoon.

In Striker, by contrast, the emphasis is on the actions of the platoon commander. The intent of the rules is to put the player in the role of a small unit commander and force him to think about what he would be doing with his time if he were actually present on the battlefield. Here is the action again from the platoon commander’s viewpoint, described in game terms and broken into 30-second Striker turns :

On turn 1, the enemy fired upon first squad. On turn 2, as first squad halted to return fire (an action within the abilities of the squad leader), the platoon commander gave a brief order to the remainder of the platoon to stop the advance; the chatter back and forth, with acknowledgements, took all his time in that turn. On turn 3 the officer began making his way toward the site of the firefight, receiving a situation report from first squad’s leader on the way. On turn 4, he was encountered by routing militiamen, and was forced to decide whether to rally them, bring up his reserves, call for support from the company mortars, or keep moving; he decided to move the reserves into the line, again a simple, previously agreed upon code. On turn 5 he reached the right flank squad, in time to find the ambushers gone. On turn 6 he personally led the remnants of first squad back toward the center of the line. On turn 7 he encountered the stragglers and, still moving, attached them to his retinue. He arrived back in his original position, followed by first squad, on turn 9, finding both his platoon sergeant and the second squad leader there. He held a short orders briefing to explain the new order of advance to the three NCOs, an unforeseen situation for which no ready-made code word existed, explaining to each of them their positions in the new line, their new objective, speed of the advance, and a place to rally in case of disaster. The briefing took four minutes in all, or 8 turns. Then, on turn 18, the squads moved to their new positions and on turn 19 the advance resumed. Total elapsed time, a little under ten minutes, or 19 turns instead of 5.

Striker, Book 1, Basic Rules, GDW, 1981

Wargame: The Story

Wargame narratives can also be used to entertain. This is not easy and takes more than a bit of effort. A prime example of wargame-turned-narrative is “The Dance of the Vampires.” The popular version of this story is found as chapter 20 of Tom Clancy’s novel Red Storm Rising. The chapter is the high point of the first act in the book and features a regimental-size Soviet Backfire bomber raid against a US-French carrier battle group.

There is a second version of the story – a very wargame one. Dance of the Vampires: A Cold War Harpoon Scenario was written by Larry Bond and tells the story of the wargame behind Clancy’s chapter. As Mr. Bond explains:

Tom and I decided that the best way to explore the possibilities was by using Harpoon to game out an attack. This is not how “Dance of the Vampires” was written. We already knew how the chapter had to end. What we were seeking was a better understanding of what factors drove each side’s thinking. When all those untried systems were pitted against each other, how would they interact?

Dance of the Vampires: A Cold War Harpoon Scenario (2nd Ed), p. 2

When one reads the scenario book Dance of the Vampires, it is easy to see how Clancy and Bond got to the chapter “Dance of the Vampires” in Red Storm Rising. When both are considered, it’s readily apparent how a good wargame narrative can contribute to the making of a good entertaining story.

While “Dance of the Vampires” is a great story based on a wargame, it is far from the only one. One of the most successful examples may be the Battletech series of novels. However, I have long preferred the narratives found in Captain’s Log, the house magazine of Amarillo Design Bureau supporting their Star Fleet Universe. What I consider one of the best examples of a story based on a wargame was found in the predecessor to Captain’s Log, the old Nexus magazine. The first “story” written in Nexus, “Behind the Glory of Heroes,” was published in 1983 and reprinted in Captain’s Log #13 in 1993. Here is the story of Petty Officer Kelly Wright, working E-Scan aboard a Federation Base Station that is attacked by Romulan warships.

It was a long time before the approaching warships uncloaked and became visible. Immediately three pairs of warp engines were captured by her E-Scan; one pair quite large and the other two only slightly smaller. Very quickly a fourth pair, much smaller pair, was picked up. Her computer estimated the three larger emissions were cruiser class engines and the fourth pair, the smallest ones, were destroyer-type engines. Very quickly the computer, in communication with the scanning network of the station, confirmed the approach of a KR Cruiser, two War Eagles, and a Klingon-type frigate, probably the KR5 that had been seen in this sector some weeks ago. She fed her information to gunnery.

Her professional detachment was shaken a bit when she picked up torpedoes heating in their tubes. But soon the starships would get here and drive them off. All they had to do was hang on a few minutes. It would be a tough fight, no doubt, but she was confident. When the base’s phaser warning light came blinked on her console, she shut her equipment off. The emissions of the phasers would blind her, and E-Scan wasn’t needed any more. Sensors One and Two would govern the weapons fire.

She sat back and felt the floor hum with the shots. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched the warning light, poised to turn her equipment back on the moment the light went off.

She never actually felt the blow. She simply found herself on the floor stupidly thinking she should have strapped herself in as they do on the ships. The air was acrid with burning plastic and a putrid-sweet smell she didn’t recognize. She vaguely heard screams in the distance and a muffled bleating of something, but her ears felt as if something was pressuring them. Her eyes began to sting and water.

“Behind the Glory of Heroes,” Captain’s Log #13, p. 4

Like all the stories in Captain’s Log, the narrative is playable in one of the Star Fleet Universe games. Indeed, the editors of Captain’s Log would only publish stories that “followed” the rules of the universe (i.e. replicable without breaking game mechanics).

Another feature of Captain’s Log that I really enjoyed was the narrative found in “The Academy.”

One of the most popular features of Captain’s Log is the Academy, a fictitious future classroom where cadets from Star Fleet Academy (with names suspiciously like those of the SFB staff and playtesters) sharpen their tactical skills in classroom debates and simulator exercises.

“The Academy,” Captain’s Log #13, p. 39

I hold Captain’s Log as a prime example of how the experiences of a wargame can be told through creative fiction. It’s sad that we don’t see more of this, but that may be because telling a story in hard. Sometimes, it takes professionals.

FICINT

While wargame narratives can educate and entertain, it also can be used to inform. Here is where the professional wargamer side of me steps forward. In many ways, I consider a some wargame narratives to actually be what some have taken to calling FICINT – Fictional Intelligence.

‘FICINT’ (Fictional Intelligence), also known as ‘useful fiction’, is an analytic tool that melds narrative and nonfiction. Its attributes are particularly attuned to aiding in visualizing new technology and trends – key issues at play in geopolitical change emergent great power competition. But it is not mere storytelling. There are rules to using this tool successfully, however.

Abstract, “Thinking the Unthinkable With Useful Fiction,” Cole & Singer, 2020

This quote comes from a recent journal article written by August Cole and Peter W. Singer, authors of Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War (HMH, 2015). In a recent journal article for Queens University in Canada, Cole, an author by profession, and Singer, part of a think tank, explain how in Ghost Fleet they wanted to, “bring to the surface…the issues of a world to come, in which there was not just a resurgence of great power rivalry and a risk of war, but also a future in which traditional US military advantages through new technologies such as space-based communications or fifth generation jest might give way to new vulnerabilities, such as supply chain security and weaponized satellites….Doubling down, we went the route of a new kind of novel with research endnotes.”

Unfortunately, Cole & Singer tend to denigrate the usefulness of wargames in ‘useful fiction’. They don’t like wargames because, as they put write, it violates their “rule of the real” which are:

  • “…it must be set in the real world.”
  • “…also reflect the real world.”
  • “…should reflect who realistically might be there and how real people would act under those circumstances.”
  • “…what Clausewitz called ‘fog’ and ‘friction’ should also be ever-present.”

Cole and Singer go on to discuss one further point:

The rule of the real also means there is no ‘vaporware’ in FICINT. Unlike in science fiction or frankly in many military wargames and program plans, any technology or system in the story must already exist or be in development.

“Thinking The Unthinkable With Useful Fiction,” Cole & Singer

Here I disagree. The narrative from a wargame can follow Cole & Singer’s “Rule of the Real”…if the right wargame is played. The best wargames for FICINT are obviously ones that project into the near future. A recent example of how the narrative of a wargame can be ‘useful fiction’ is found at the US Army’s Mad Scientist Laboratory in an article titled, “281. Would You Like to Play a Game? Wargaming as a Learning Experience and Key Assumptions Check.”

I recently came across an article in War on the Rocks by Dr. James Lacey, entitled How Does the Next Great Power Conflict Play Out? Lessons From a Wargame.”1 The piece was written a year ago, and details his work at the Marine Corps War College where he had his students simulate a broad global conflict involving the United States dealing with simultaneous outbreaks of conflict in Europe, the Korean Peninsula, and the Taiwan Strait. To run the event, Dr. Lacey used the commercially available Next War series of games published by GMT Games, which simulate a near-future conflict in these areas. The game system is complex, but in Dr. Lacey’s words, offers a reasonable approximation of near future conflict at the operational level of war. Dr. Lacey’s article, and an earlier piece he wrote on wargaming,2 offer a compelling argument for the utility of gaming as a classroom learning tool, allowing students to analyze critical problems and test their solutions, and most importantly, discuss what they learned with a rigorous after-action report (AAR) discussion.

“How Does the Next Great Power Conflict Play Out? Lessons From a Wargame.”

Along the way, and to help the process, he wrote…a narrative which starts as this:

The war began in the fall, with a Russian invasion of all three Baltic States and Poland. Belarus sided with Russia, and contributed to the attack. The Russians had some very early success in the Baltic States, but were a bit bloodied in the process. It took Russia about five days to occupy the Baltic States before it was able to turn its full attention on Poland. NATO was relatively well-prepared for the conflict, and had significant air power ready and available on D-day. Most importantly, thanks to solid indications and warning, the United States Army had a strong presence in Poland prior to the conflict. In addition to the standard Europe-based forces of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, and a Europe-based US rotational HBCT — in this case, the 2nd BCT of the 3rd Infantry Division — the entire 82nd Airborne Division and the 1st BCT of the 101st Air Assault Division were on hand in the crisis period.

Here is an example where a wargamer took the experience of play, carefully recorded it, and then studied it. The game created a version of ‘useful fiction’ that can be used to educate, entertain, and inform. It is very ‘useful fiction’.

The Alternate History Wargame Story

Historical wargames can create another narrative, an alternate history story. Indeed, one could argue that historical conflict simulations are a form of alternate history where the historical outcome in a game is just one of an infinite number of possibilities.

Too often that becomes the problem; players will protest a game that doesn’t deliver the historical outcome. This is unfortunate because a good designer will give us a wargame where the historical outcome is possible but not guaranteed. That doesn’t mean the historical outcome need be the ‘norm’ for the very outcome that history tells us to expect may have been the outlier event. If I play a wargame and the historical outcome is preordained, I have no interest in exploring further. But if it instead gives me the tools to explore….

Take for instance Cataclysm: A Second World War (Scott Muldoon, GMT Games, 2018). The game is explicitly NOT a recreation of the Second World War. Rather, the game puts the players in the midst of the conditions leading up to the war and lets them figure it out.

At the end of the day, I personally find reading alternate history narratives boring. They are often boring for the same reasons I find the entire alternate history genre tiring; the stories often revolve around an issue that was not central to the change depicted. More importantly, I don’t particularly enjoy alternate history wargame narratives because I want to play a wargame and actively create the narrative, not sit and read it passively.

Wargames Are Narratives

Wargames can create many narratives. Be it to educate, entertain, inform, or just look at how history may have taken a different course, wargames can be used to tell a story. The trick is to tell a good story for those are few and far between.

I’ll personally admit that I write poor AARs. A few times I have tried to tell the AAR with a story. To be honest, I find them fun to write. Here is one of my more recent ones, the “Saga of Lt T in Undaunted: North Africa.” That said, they are far from polished. All too often they lack a focus of purpose. Maybe now after this discussion I will do better?

#WargameWednesday #RPGThursday Retrospective – Commando: The Combat Adventure Game (1979)

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 Commando into 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)

 

RPG Thursday – My Top Seven RPG Internet Meme

James over at Grognardia started it, and I am late to get on the bandwagon.

My top 7 played RPGs in 2012 (and a good marker for the past several years):

1 – Classic Traveller (Admittedly not so much the RPG but the setting. I especially have played the games of Classic Traveller such as Striker, Book 5: High Guard, Adventure 5: Trillion Credit Squadron, Imperium, Fifth Frontier War, and Power Projection: Fleet; as well as using adventures such as Adventure 7: Broadsword as inspiration for Tomorrow’s War.)

2- Mongoose Traveller (including Hammer’s Slammers, Outpost Mars and Orbital)

3 – Battlestar Galactica

4 – Serenity

5 – Prime Directive

6 – Mouse Guard

7 – Others I played around with in 2012 were Marvel Heroic Roleplaying and the new Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner’s Game. Also messed around with Space: 1889 and A Song of Ice and Fire: Game of Thrones Edition.