#RPG Rulings – Understanding Gravity in #TheExpanse Using #CepheusEngine #TravellerRPG

Season 5 of The Expanse TV series is streaming now, which means its that time of the TV season that I look once again at how I can take the hard-ish science fiction of James S.A. Corey and depict it in a roleplaying game campaign. This time I am focused on one foundational aspect of the setting that I took for granted before – gravity.

Getting Down with Gravity in The Expanse

Gravity in The Expanse is kept fairly realistic. The sources of gravity are what we expect from our current understanding of physics. Gravity is created by mass (planets, moons, planetoids, asteroids), spin habitats, or along the thrust vector of ships. Gravity is also a vital part of the cultures in The Expanse. From Belters who are tall and lanky from growing up in low-g but weak in normal gravity to Martian Marines who train at 1-g to be ready to fight on Earth, gravity is an important descriptor (discriminator?) between different factions. Gravity also has important impacts to space travel and combat; look no further than the need for “the juice” to withstand high-g acceleration or maneuvers or how it acts to limit human activities if one’s body is subjected to high-g stress for long durations (not to mention the catastrophic consequences of decelerating too quickly, yuck).

Courtesy pintrest.com

Rules of Gravity

I don’t presently own The Expanse Roleplaying Game from Green Ronin so I do not know the details of how they handle gravity in that setting. However, I am a long-time Traveller RPG player. These days I enjoy the modern incarnation of the Original 2d6 Science Fiction Roleplaying Game by using the Cepheus Engine rules set.

For my exploration of of gravity and The Expanse, I focused on five RPG rule sets or settings:

I really appreciate how all these various rule sets can work together to create an internally consistent, plausible setting. Although I use all these different rules sets and settings for reference, I will describe my rules interpretations primarily in Cepheus Engine terms for ease of integration across the various rules incarnations. My goal here is not to “science the sh*t” out of gravity in my RPG campaign, but to lean on a reasonable set of rules to provide good setting “flavor.”

Characters and Gravity

Characters in Cepheus Engine are described using three physical characteristics; Strength, Dexterity, and Endurance. The usual character generation method is to roll 2d6 for each characteristic. Each characteristic can range from 1 to 15 with 7 being a human average. Interestingly, when creating the physical characteristics of a character, there is no adjustment in the rules based on a low-gravity homeworld. Instead, an (assumed) low gravity homeworld grants certain default skills. Specifically, a homeworld with a Trade Code of “Asteroid” or “Vacuum” earn the Zero-G-0 skill (CESRD, p. 26)

The CESRD also has rules for alien species that are not specifically intended for human characters but I note them here as they may prove useful:

  • Notable (Characteristic): Some species are notably dexterous, intelligent, tough or strong. Characters from such races have a positive Dice Modifier when rolling for that characteristic (+2 unless otherwise specified), and their racial maximum for that characteristic is increased by the same amount. (CESRD, p. 44)
  • Weak (Characteristic): The opposite of Notable (Characteristic), some species are weaker, less resilient or less well educated than others. Characters from such races have a negative Dice Modifier when rolling for that characteristic (-2 unless otherwise specified), and their racial maximum for that characteristic is decreased by the same amount. (CESRD, p. 45)

The Clement Sector setting supplement Tree of Life: Altrants in Clement Sector defines an altrant as, “groups of humans which, from birth, have been altered thanks to advanced genetic manipulation, to have abilities different than a baseline human. These changes were most often made to allow humans to be able to perform tasks and live in environments which would be difficult or impossible for baseline humans.” If one ignores the “genetic manipulation” and instead views the change as “naturally evolved” then two Body Alterations found in this supplement may be useful:

  • Muscle Increase Package: Often referred to as the “Hercules” alteration, this procedure alters the body to make it as strong as it can possibly be. This alteration is the equivalent of years of strength training and will give the body the appearance of a successful bodybuilder. Taking this alteration gives the character +3 to their STR and -3 to their DEX immediately after the full alteration time period has passed. (Tree of Life, p. 45)
  • Vestibular System (Improved): This alteration improves the sensory system which provides the user with their sense of balance, spacial orientation, and balance. This gives the character a +2 DM to any physical task performed in gravity of less than 0.50 standard. However, the character will suffer a -2 DM to any physical task attempted in gravity of more than 1.25 standard (Tree of Life, p. 49)
Courtesy geekwire.com

The CESRD is also limited in what affect gravity has on characters. The skill “Zero-G” provides some guidance for actions in zero-gravity environments:

Zero G: The Character is acclimated to working and living in micro-gravity environments and freefall. The character is trained and familiar with the use of weapons and combat in such environments. In addition, the individual has been trained in the wearing, care, and maintenance of all types of Vacuum Suits and Combat Armor commonly used in these conditions.

CESRD, p. 57

[As an aside, looking back over the history of Traveller, the Zero-G skill, seemingly so foundational to a science fiction setting, has evolved in interesting ways. In Classic Traveller Little Black Book 1: Characters and Combat, one finds the skill Vacc Suit but not Zero-G. The CESRD has Zero-G but not Vacc Suit. T5 has both Vacc Suit (which it names as a Default Skill that all characters start with) AND Zero-G.]

Rules for “High and Low Gravity Worlds” are found in Chapter 12: Worlds of the CESRD:

High and Low Gravity Worlds: Worlds where the gravity is 0.75 or less are low-gravity worlds….Humans tend to find life on low-gravity worlds to be initially pleasant, but regular exercise regimes and medicinal supplements are required to prevent bone and muscle degradation. Those who spent too long on low-gravity worlds cannot tolerate higher gravities. Characters on low-gravity worlds suffer a -1 DM to all skill checks until they acclimatize, a process which takes 1D6 weeks. Characters with Zero-G skill at level 0 or better acclimatize instantly.

High-gravity worlds have a gravity 1.25 times or more than of Earth….Humans find high-gravity worlds unpleasant. Especially high-gravity worlds require the use of pressured or powered suits to support the human frame. Characters on high-gravity worlds suffer a -1 DM to all skill checks until they acclimatize, a process that takes 1D6 weeks.

CESRD, p. 168

Going back deep into the Classic Traveller lore, Module 2: Beltstrike includes rules for activities in zero and low gravity. Basically put, anytime the characters attempted to move or otherwise act in zero-g they had to make a saving throw of 10+ (on 2d6), applying modifiers as found on the Zero-G Activities Chart:

Classic Traveller Module 2: Beltstrike, p. 11

The more recent Orbital 2100 also provides rules for activities in zero-g environment. The task roll in Orbital 2100 is the spiritual successor of Beltstrike but greatly simplified:

Every crewman on DSV [Deep Space Vehicle] or orbital vehicle will have Zero-G skill-0 as standard. Higher levels of the skill are indicative of much greater experience of working in zero gravity. A crucial task, whether it is aligning and antenna or an EVA, shooting someone with a revolver or trying to shut an airlock door quickly to prevent an intruder forcing their way in, requires a skill check. For regular activities, skip the rolls entirely.

Avoid Losing Control in Zero-Gravity: Zero-G, Dexterity, Instant, Average (+0)

Apply the following DMs: Using a tool to repair/construct -2, Firing a gun -3, striking with tool, weapon, fist etc., or pushing/pulling -4, using a handhold +2

Losing control means that the task has failed until control reestablished, the character is tumbling! Roll again to regain control, but this time there are no DM’s, either positive or negative, except for those derived from Zero-G skill and Dexterity characteristic.

Orbital 2100 v3, p. 125

Before we get into making a character for The Expanse, let’s also consider what the spacecraft in book and TV series show us.

Ships and Gravity

The Expanse Canon

Way back in October 2016 and February 2017 I did two posts on how I viewed the depiction of spacecraft in The Expanse in Cepheus Engine-terms. To recap, there are three basic forms of Maneuvering Drive (M-Drive) shown in The Expanse; the “Teakettle,” the fusion torch, and the Epstein Drive:

Flying teakettle was naval slang for flying on the maneuvering thrusters that used superheated steam for reaction mass. The Knight‘s fusion torch would be dangerous to use this close to the Canterbury and wasteful on such a short trip. Torches were pre-Epstein fusion drives and far less efficient.

Leviathan Wakes, Chapter 3

By doing some backwards math I worked out that the “Teakettle” tops out at 2-G acceleration. Based on the upper limits of the instruments in Solomon Epstein’s ship, the fusion torch appears to have a limit of 7-G acceleration. In the novella The Drive, Epstein’s new drive pushes him at something like 12-Gs and in Season One of The Expanse the Rochinante pushes upwards of 17-G acceleration. As fast and exciting a high-speed run is, the mundane reality of travel in The Expanse is that ships usually plod along at a much slower cruising rate. Judging from the book Leviathan Wakes and the novella The Drive it appears that “cruising speed” is somewhere around 0.3-G acceleration. This ‘minimal acceleration provides just enough g-force to avoid the penalties of zero-g activities. This low-G acceleration is also important to note because it plays into the design of the ships.

Courtesy Syfy.com

Ship Gravity Using Cepheus Engine

One of the major “handwavium” technologies in Classic Traveller and now Cepheus Engine is that with the advent of the gravity-based maneuver drives you also get artificial gravity, known in the Traveller setting as “Compensators”:

  • Compensators. Integral to Maneuver Drives, Gravitic Drives, and Lifters is an inertial compensation component which counteracts the effects on acceleration on occupants of the ship. (T5 v5.10, Book 2: Starships, “How Maneuver Works,” p. 101)

In The Expanse there is no artificial gravity device for spacecraft so we need to find some rules to help us depict what happens with too much, or too little, gravity and what design decisions can be made to compensate.

Gel-y Juice

In The Expanse, there are two technologies for dealing with the crushing force of high-g acceleration. The first is acceleration gel; “Thirty minutes later, the engines kicked on, pressing him into the acceleration gel at a joint-crushing high-g burn for thirteen days, with one-g breaks for biological function every four hours.” (Leviathan Wakes, Chapter 46)

The second acceleration compensating technology is “The Juice:”

Going on the juice was pilot-speak for a high-g burn that would knock an unmedicated human unconscious. The juice was a cocktail of drugs the pilot’s chair would inject into him to keep him conscious, alert, and hopefully stroke-free when his body weighed five hundred kilos. Holden had used the juice on multiple occasions in the navy, and coming down afterward was unpleasant. 

Leviathan Wakes, Chapter 5

Standing Up In Space

The design of ships in The Expanse is also driven by the lack of an artificial gravity device. Fortunately, the setting of Orbital 2100 is in our near future and leans heavily into pre-gravitic spacecraft design similar to The Expanse and therefore can be used as a guide:

The biggest difference in space technology is the absence of anti-gravity….Not only are the drives different but the lack of on-board gravity means the crew must operate in zero-G throughout the mission. The only way to mitigate this is the installation of spin habitats, or rotating sections of the spacecraft, that ‘simulate’ gravity.

Orbital 2100, Chapter 5: Spacecraft Design, p. 37

For The Clement Sector setting, ship design is found in the Anderson & Felix Guide to Naval Architecture. Included in A&F is a module for designing Pre-Gravitic Drive Spacecraft. Here we actually get rules for continuous micro-gravity exposure as well as alternate methods of producing artificial gravity, both of which are also featured in The Expanse:

For every four week period of continuous micro gravity exposure there will be a one point strength and endurance characteristic loss that will require 1d6 weeks of recover in a one standard gravity environment.

The two main methods of producing artificial gravity are:

Thrust

Producing “rear is down” gravity

A ship under acceleration will produce thrust gravity. In this instance the ship’s internal layout will need to be perpendicular to the axis of the ship or ninety degrees to the line of flight.

Centrifugal Rotation

Producing “out is down” gravity

For any type of method using centrifugal rotation to produce gravity, the internal layout must be aligned so that decks face inward towards the center of the rotation arc.

Anderson & Felix Guide to Naval Architecture, “Artificial Gravity,” p. 106
Courtesy syfy.com

Expanse-ive Characters

Having looked at many rules of Traveller and Cepheus Engine, how do I think characters from The Expanse could be portrayed?

Building a Better Belter

For Belter characters, at character generation I give each the Weak (Strength) and Weak (Endurance) trait from the CESRD alien species listing. I also give Belters the Vestibular System (Improved) alteration found in The Clement Sector supplement Tree of Life. Note that Belters grow up with the Zero-G skill so they instantly acclimatize when moving between different gravity world unless they cannot exercise or medicinal supplements are not available. To simulate the absence of such I ruled that they suffer loss of strength and endurance the same as if they were exposed to micro gravity for long periods.

I’ll point out here that the Belter career in the CESRD is perfectly adequate for generating a Belter character. However, if you have access to the Cepheus Engine supplement Uranium Fever: Asteroid Mining Rules for the Cepheus Engine from Stellagama Publishing (2018) the Independent Belter, Company Belter, and Planetary Miner careers are well worth the small cost of the product.

For Mars – Hu-ah!

I tend to generate and play Martian characters pretty much as a standard human. Being born, raised or living on Mars for any extended length of time automatically earns the Zero-G skill. Martian Marines, of course, are generated using the CESRD Marine career although I also draw upon materials found in The Clement Sector, in particular the sourcebook Hub Federation Ground Forces.

Acceleration

There are no specific rules in Cepheus Engine or Orbital 2100 for acceleration effects on characters. Looking at “Falling and Gravity “in CESRD (p. 164), we see that on a 1g world, a character suffers 1d6 damage per 2m of fall. The rules further specify that for higher g worlds, multiple the 1d6 by the planet’s gravity number. The Epstein Drive accelerates at 11-G which we can compute as 11d6 damage. The question is the time period in which this damage takes place. Falling is assumed to be instantaneous, but declaring 11d6 damage per combat round (every 6 seconds) does not seem to fit the events of The Drive. This seems excessive because an average character in Orbital 2100 (7 Strength/7 Dexterity/ 7 Endurance) only has 21 damage points until death. The “average” damage from 11d6 is 44, meaning an average character is dead twice over!

Perhaps we should assume the 11d6 damage takes place every space combat round  (1,000 seconds/16.6 minutes) instead? This better reflects the painful, but non-instantaneous death like Solomon Epstein experiences in The Drive. It still seems like an excessive amount of damage guaranteeing a quick character death.

Looking around for a solution, and not finding one in the rules, I suggest a “house rule” that acceleration couches (built with that acceleration gel) absorb some of the damaging g forces. In This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury, acceleration couches in the Mercury spacecraft were designed to absorb 9G (assumed to be the maximum G at reentry). If we use couches to absorb, say, 10 of 11G, the character will have only 1g of damage (1d6) per space combat round. This means an average human may  last as long as six space combat rounds, or about 100 minutes, before succumbing to the strangling G forces. We could also say that prolonged exposure to high-g, defined as more than 1-G acceleration but less than the 9-G acceleration gel couch rating, will subtract one from the strength and endurance characteristic every 16 space combat rounds (around 4 hours) unless there is a four-round (1 hour) break in acceleration at 1-G or less. This fits with the time period in Leviathan Wakes when talking about acceleration gel.

These Boots Are Made For Walking

One important piece of equipment is The Expanse is Magnetic Boots. Characters with the Zero-G skill automatically can use Mag Boots; other need 1d6 hours to acclimatize. (I’m so tempted here to say that, based on canonical events in the TV series, female characters get an automatic -2 DM on the time roll, but that would be gender biased, eh?)

“Now you just walk around like you’re in pumps.”

Working In Space

When the player characters are in low-G or micro-G environments, I makes sure to use the Orbital 2100 working in space task check unless they are wearing Mag Boots (count as a handhold for the +2 DM) or the ship is moving with at least 0.3-G acceleration. I also enforce the A&F prolonged micro-gravity exposure rule.

Rochinante, Meet Broadsword and Azhanti High Lightning

Ships in The Expanse are built using what I call a “tower-ship” or “tail-sitter” design where the decks are arranged like floors in a building perpendicular to the axis of thrust. Classic Traveller and Cepheus Engine don’t have many designs to reference, but I will point out that the Azhanti High Lightning-class of cruisers (Classic Traveller Game 3 – Azhanti High Lightning) or the Broadsword Mercenary Cruiser (Classic Traveller Adventure 7: Broadsword) are built using a tower-ship/tail sitter design like the Rochinante. If you want to see a Cepheus Engine ship design that uses the tower-ship configuration I recommend you get Ship Files: Atticus Class Freelancer from Moon Toad Publishing (2017). This 100dTon ship is a tail-sitter not that much smaller than the Rochinante….

Courtesy Moon Toad Publishing

RPG Thursday – Soaring into battle with #TravellerRPG

“What’s that?”

Strom turned his attention from his mapping instruments and looked over at the panels that Ga’de, his co-pilot and fellow Scout, was now studying intently. The optical array had picked up something and flashed an alert. Whatever it was, it was unidentified for the moment.

“It’s small and cool,” Ga’de reported. “Maybe 5 dTons in size. Why is it in a retrograde orbit?”

“Yeah,” Strom thought out loud. “It’s coming straight at us.”

Ga’de glanced away from his instruments and over at Strom. His brow was furrowed. “They’re attacking?”

Strom was thinking out loud. “Since we got here, the western continent has not liked our presence. They’re the most vocal about the ‘danger’ of ‘outer space aliens’. They’ve made announcements that they are willing to fight to keep us out.”

Ga’de harrumphed. “What imbeciles. They just can’t accept that they’re not alone in the universe and somebody else made it to the stars before them. We offer them technology and they reject us because we threaten their ”culture’. Why can’t they see that we offer them the future?”

Inwardly, Strom agreed but talking about it was not the solution right now. “Can we get any sort of ID on it?” he asked.

Ga’de turned back at his instruments. “Hard to tell, optics seem to show something winged. Do they have manned small craft?”

Courtesy astronautic.com

On a small screen next to his station Strom consulted the few files they had on the planet so far. In a previous expedition they had raided what passed for a library on this planet and acquired an “Encyclopedia” but it was a physical paper document. It had taken a while to scan it into the computer and the cross-references were poor. Imagine that; a planet so backwards they didn’t even have the SmartNet yet!

“Yes, they are working on a crewed launch capability using capsules. But the only thing shown here is crude ballistic missiles, nothing more than TL5 at the best. Wings…that’s different,” Strom trailed off.

“Do we maneuver?” There was a nervous edge in Ga’de’s voice.

Strom considered. “We’re higher tech. And we have to finish this mapping mission. Besides, we can’t let them think they can push us around.” He paused for just a moment. “No. We maintain course.”

Optics continued tracking the black winged object. A bit nervous now, Strom nudged the thrusters a bit to slightly change their vector; a few moments later the black winged object adjusted too.

“That’s not right,” Strom thought. “It means it’s guided…by a hu-man?

The range was closing rapidly. The approach looked like it was going to be close.

Somewhat belatedly, Strom stirred into action. “Ga’de, get to the turret, fast.”

Ga’de got up and raced from the control cabin. The winged craft kept closing.

Strom watched his panel as the turret indicator light came on. His heart sank when Gade made his first call.

“Damn systems rebooting! Something about an urgent update!”

Strom strapped himself in as he started throwing switches. “Strap in, we’re gonna burn!”

Time seemed to slow to a crawl. Strom saw on the optics the winged beast release a smaller object that flared briefly and accelerated quickly towards his saucer. He saw out of the corner of his eye a warning from the radiation detector. He heard Ga’de cursing the Gods in the turret.

These Stars Are Ours, Stellagama Publishing, 2017

He reoriented the ship and punched the M-Drive. As Strom was slammed back in his chair by the acceleration he thought about his mission. The Quorum had sent them here to expand the frontiers of their small empire. Surely, this lesser-developed planet, just at the cusp of spaceflight, would welcome them. After all, they were a highly compatible species as secretive missions before had shown. Some of the specimens captured were still alive and helping the Quorum even now. Sure, some had resisted, but they were the exception, right?

The small missile flared again but brightly this time. It changed course to intercept Strom’s saucer. Before he could manuever again the small object exploded with a blinding flash of light. As the expanding atomic fireball rapidly washed over his saucer, Strom thought that, surely, their superior technology would save them. Surely….



Deep inside a bunker buried under a mountain, the General watched intently as the stream of information from SIDS, the Space Intruder Detection System, reported the nuclear detonation in orbit above. The Eastern Pact would be upset by the large EMP event above their continent, but setting them back while destroying the alien intruders was but a small price to pay for saving the planet.

The General watches (Courtesy Wargames)

The General glanced to his right at the two ‘Agents’ dressed in identical black suits. They kinda looked like that a-hole J. Edgar’s men, but something was not quite right. The older one had never smiled. The younger one kinda fidgeted until the older one glared at him then he too stood by emotionless. They didn’t even laugh at his spark plug joke. Shaking his head ever so slightly, the General swore under his breath that he would never understand why they wore sunglasses this deep inside the mountain.

Sighing, the General spoke up, “Control, take us to DEFCON 5. Ops, make sure all reports are are captured for Project Blue Book. Comms, get me a channel.”

“Ground Control to Major Tom….”

Courtesy collectorsweekly.com

This mini Traveller RPG adventure was inspired by a tweet by @pilliarscreatio showing a Boeing Dyna-Soar hot-staging into orbit.

Key materials referenced include:

MayDay – #TravellerRPG version 5.10 coming to Kickstarter

I STILL remember the day back in late 1979 I discovered three Little Black Books (LBB). Since then, I have been a (mostly) loyal Traveller RPG player. The game has gone through many versions from the first (now Classic) Traveller with the latest from original creator Marc Miller called Traveller 5 (T5).

T5 is an interesting beast. Funded through Kickstarter in 2012, the game eventually delivered a beta disk, softcopy, hardcopy, and a revised version 5.09 via softcopy again in 2015. Many people were disappointed in T5.09. Personally, I found it unplayable as a game but a great toolkit for setting creation and worldbuilding. I was not as negative as some and used it to support Mongoose Traveller First Edition and now Cepheus Engine after the Great Mongoose Traveller Debacle.

Marc Miller sent an update to T5 backers this week announcing T5.10. Three Big Black Books (BBB) of about 800 pages of content.

IMG_0232If I am reading the announcement correctly, as an original T5 Kickstarter backer I am going to get an electronic version of T5.10 automatically. If I want to get the physical books for T5.10 I need to back the Kickstarter. The three Big Black Books are going set one back $100. That’s a bit of change….

IMG_0231I’m torn. Marc says the plan is to relase the electronic version in July-August just before physical copies are sent. This means I am really taking that Kickstarter risk – buying the new game relatively sight-unseen.

Then there is the question about the original Kickstarter and whether it’s really finished:

By popular demand, we have committed to producing the Traveller5 Player’s Book: a handy digest-size rules reference tailored for use by Players but without the (primarily) Referee’s rules. We expect to produce a printed version in Spring 2013, but every Backer who orders a Book will receive a link to an Ebook version when it is complete. (T5 Kickstarter Campaign)

It’s 2019 and there has been no Player’s Book. Nor is it mentioned in the new Kickstarter. Spider-sense is tingling….

The Traveller fan boy in me wants to jump in; the more logical side (heavily influenced by Mrs. RMN who has, politely and without nagging, asked me to control my hobby gaming spending) says to be careful – the trons version should be enough. If T5.10 is not easily playable like T5.09 then $100 is a really expensive toolkit. But 800 pages of trons is really tough to read…and I really like imagining the slipcase on my bookshelf and caressing those BBBs in my hands.

I also am in some ways willing to give Marc a pass on the Player’s Book. The sooner T5.09 is put behind the better. Better yet, think of T5.10 as the Player’s Book…and more.

I hope that’s not just wishful thinking.

To be honest, in the past year I have barely touched any RPGs. I went through a very strong hobby boardgame and wargame phase in 2018 and in 2019 I have dialed it back to mostly wargames with a smattering of family boardgames. I am dedicated to playing more games already in my collection and resisting the Cult of the New (CotN) or Fear of Missing Out (FoMO).

Yeah…right. Who am I kidding?

Hey Marc, take my money!

 

 

 

Lost in the Role – or – Why so Little RPG Talk?

If you look back on my blog, you will see that up until this year I had a heavy focus on roleplaying games, especially science-fiction RPGs. This year I have turned hard into boardgames with a mix of tabletop family games and wargames landing on the table. RPGs have definitely fallen off to the side.

I recently took a look at DriveThruRPGs Black Friday to Cyber Monday Sale and made a few purchases, but at the same time I asked myself why I lost my RPG mojo. Last year I really tried to like Star Trek Adventures from Modiphius Entertainment. I participated in part of the Living Playtest and offered (few, very few) comments. In the end, instead of liking Star Trek Adventures, I was turned off to RPGs and only now am (sorta) giving them a chance again.

I have talked elsewhere about the art in Star Trek Adventures and how I find it totally opposite what I imagine. I also talked about how the now-decanonized Klingons Sourcebook for the FASA Star Trek RPG was more inspirational. But the part that turned me off the most was this:

borg_cube
Courtesy Modiphius Entertainment

This is the Star Trek Adventures Borg Cube Collector’s Edition Box Set. To me, this is not an RPG.

I cannot fully explain why I have such a visceral reaction to this offering. I understand that I don’t need the extra maps, and dice, and miniatures, and tokens, and other baubles to play an RPG. I know that all you need to play is a simple set of rules and imagination. I know because that is what I did with Classic Traveller for many years.

I think when I saw Star Trek Adventures I saw the continuation of a trend towards bigger RPG rulebooks and more IP-related gaming. To a point I had bought into that market with Serenity and Battlestar Galactica and Traveller 5 and Mindjammer and Atomic Robo and Firefly and Star Wars Roleplaying Game finding cherished places on my shelf.

But then something changed.

The first was that Mongoose Publishing brought out Traveller Second Edition and repackaged it in a way that makes it totally a price grab. This was just after they changed the rules for third-party publishers and stifled creativity (no…that’s not fair…they monetized it in an unfair manner). This was followed not long after by Star Trek Adventures and the Borg Cube trying to assimilate my wallet.

I rejected them…and walked away from the RPG hobby for a bit.

I am slowly finding my way back, thanks to small publishers like Gypsy Knights Games and Zozer Games and Stellagama Publishing. For a while that’s where I think I am going to stay for RPGs, on the smaller side of the spectrum with publishers who offer material that stimulate my creativity in a more rules-lite, non-restrictive campaign setting.

220791-thumb140I have found my RPG mojo…it never left and it is actually little changed from the late 1970’s. It just doesn’t need a large box and multiple rulebooks and maps and tokens and minis and hardcover expansions. It needs nothing more than the PWYW Cepheus Engine and a setting like The Clement Sector. What I need is like what Zozer Games is offering; the very simple 1970s 2d6 Retro Rules. With these simple tools I can make grand adventures; I don’t need a huge Kickstarter box or endless hardcovers or miniatures or tokens to do have fun.

#RPGaDay 2017 – Which #RPG have you played the most in your life? #TravellerRPG!

#RPGaDay August 18, 2017

pic514176Don’t even have to think…it’s Traveller. Started in 1979 with the 1977 Little Black Book boxed edition. I somehow missed the MegaTraveller and Traveller: New Era times. I came back to Traveller in the much maligned (but personally respected Traveller 4).  These days I use a combination of Classic Traveller, Cepheus Engine, and Traveller 5.

#RPGaDay 2017 – What #RPG do you enjoy adapting the most?

#RPGaDay August 15, 2017

Adapting…in what way?

pic1550426_tAs a tool to use in building (or adapting) a campaign it has to be Traveller RPG, either the Classic Traveller, Cepheus Engine, or Traveller 5. I use bits and pieces of all these games and “adapt” them to my campaign. I find that between the three systems (all closely related) there is actually very little I cannot create for my sci-fi RPG settings (and yes, I use it event to create items in the Star Wars Universe).

In terms of rules that I play around with (i.e. “adapt” to whatever game I want to play) these days it is FATE Core and FATE Accelerated and to a lesser degree CORTEX. I am looking forward to Fantasy Flight Games Genesys because I absolutely love their narrative dice system.

#RPGThursday – My new Top 10 RPG (March 2017)

I was updating my RPGGeek collection and noticed that my Top 10 was way out of date. Made me start thinking again about which games I like and why.

#10 – Star Wars: Edge of the Empire

pic1545989_mdAt first I was confused by all those fancy dice with their crazy symbols. Now I see this system as one of the best matches of narrative gameplay and setting. I don’t see any other way to play a cinematic science fiction adventure. The nearly-identical Age of Rebellion and Force and Destiny round out the trilogy of adventure just like the original trilogy of movies did. Although low on my list, I am the GM in a campaign for the RockyMountainNavy Boys using this system.

#9 – Mindjammer: The Roleplaying Game (Second Edition)

pic1972069_tI always thought I would not enjoy transhumanism settings in my sci-fi RPG adventuring. At least, that was until I found the FATE Core-driven Mindjammer. Another exploration into narrative-driven RPG systems. (Avoid the Mongoose Traveller version.)

#8 – Traveller5

pic1550426_tMore a guilty pleasure than a game I play. Many people deride the rules but this is my go-to version of Traveller when I want to do some hardcore setting creation. Actually, as long as one avoids Melee Combat the rules hold up surprisingly well. It’s a shame this one gets so much bad press, the game is actually very good – its the bad reputation the first rulebook got that I think makes people stay away.

#7 – Firefly Roleplaying Game

pic1978226_tDriven by the Cortex Plus system, this is another game that shows my tilt towards more narrative-driven games. The setting is also in keeping with the Original Traveller Universe (and not all that far from Edge of the Empire either). The production quality of the books are so shiny!

#6 – FATE Accelerated

pic2026320_tStrictly rules, this slimmed down version of FATE Core is the best rules set I have found to introduce new players to narrative RPG gaming. Some people accuse this game of being too simple; I disagree and say it is the ultimate “rules-lite” system.

#5 – Atomic Robo

pic2005630_tAtomic Robo is a fine example of what happens when authors and game designers are of the same mind. The rulebook is one of the best I have ever seen, effortlessly taking source content and marrying it to game system and examples. The Brainstorming Rules are absolutely essential to ANY narrative-driven game played.

#4 – James Bond 007

pic532310_tGoing old-school here, but James Bond 007 has stood the test of time. The Chase rules, where one bids for initiative is very cinematic. I now recognize that this was the first RPG I played that had a Game Economy in the form of Hero Points. There is also the best-ever Example of Play which puts iconic scenes from the movie Goldfinger opposite game play.

#3 – Cepheus Engine System

pic3217788_tCepheus Engine is the modern 2d6 Sci-Fi RPG system that is the natural evolution of Classic Traveller. Except this one uses the Open Game License and not Mongoose Traveller’s much more restrictive legal obstacles to third-party publishing. Though a youngster, there are several great settings that take advantage of they rules including the awesome The Clement Sector, Orbital 2100, and the brand-new These Stars are Ours!

#2 – Diaspora

pic536195_tDiaspora uses the older FATE 3.0 engine, and could probably use an update to FATE Core. But the designer’s don’t have to be in a rush because Diaspora is a great game as-is. Occasionally called the Traveller version of FATE, I love it for many of the same reasons I love Traveller; it is a sci-fi adventure RPG with moderate rules overhead. The Space Combat rules are a unique take on vector-combat using range bands (and should be retrofitted to Classic Traveller).

#1 – Classic Traveller

45b96a0a8845ed78b2958bc87f1b6b58_largeIt was 1979 that I first discovered roleplaying games, and my gateway game was the three Little Black Books of Traveller. Who can ever forget the simple text on the box cover:

“This is Free Trader Beowulf, calling anyone…Mayday, Mayday…we are under attack…main drive is gone…turret number one not responding…Mayday…losing cabin pressure fast…calling anyone…please help…This is Free Trader Beowulf…Mayday….”

Now known as Classic Traveller, the rules are still a model of “complex simplicity.” Complex in that all the tools for making your own adventure are there (there is no default setting or Third Imperium in the original LBBs) and simple in terms of rules. Maybe a bit too simple, as shown by the modern rules version in Cepheus Engine. It really doesn’t matter to me what today’s version is called, Classic Traveller will always be the one dearest to my heart.


All images courtesy RPGGeek

#RPGThursday – Passing on Mindjammer Traveller

If you look at this blog, it should be apparent that the Traveller RPG is one of my favorite game systems. It should also be apparent that I have something of a love-hate relationship with Mongoose Publishing. Unfortunately, they are the current banner-carriers of the Traveller RPG system in the form of their Traveller Core Rulebook for Mongoose Traveller Second Edition.

To be clear, I don’t like it. Basically, I don’t see it as any real improvement over the original version and, when coupled with a more restrictive license that limits – even harms – third-party publishers, I am loathe to support it.

I also own Mindjammer: The Roleplaying Game (Second Edition) by Modiphius/Mindjammer Press. Mindjammer 2E uses the FATE Core rules. I am not a real fan of Transhuman adventure but I saw much good press about the game and tried it. I even liked it.

pic3340140_mdThis month, Modiphius released Mindjammer: Transhuman Adventure in the Second Age of Space using the Mongoose Traveller 2E rules. So I was challenged; I like Mindjammer but dislike Mongoose. What do I do? Do I invest in the Mindjammer: Traveller Edition for $22.49 (pdf) or not?

So I picked up the Dominion Quickstart for Mindjammer Traveller from DriveThruRPG. This is a free 48 page intro game with a few pages of rules changes from Mongoose Traveller 2E and then an adventure.

What I found was very few rules changes from Mongoose Traveller 2E and a lot of background. Background I already have in the FATE Core Mindjammer version. After careful consideration, I concluded that there is not enough new or attractive in the Mongoose Traveller 2E version of Mindjammer to purchase it.

So I’ll pass, and pause to ponder. Why do I find Mindjammer Traveller unattractive? It is the rules or setting? In this case, I don’t see a good marriage of rules to setting here. Maybe my experience with the FATE Mindjammer version has biased me, but I just don’t  feel the Mindjammer setting is best served by the Mongoose Traveller 2E rules. Indeed, I feel the story-telling or narrative basis of FATE is much better for Transhuman Adventure than the very mechanical Traveller engine. The possible results are much more wondrous – like a Transhuman setting should be.

Furthermore, I realize that my unbounded desire for anything Traveller has ended. These days, I appreciate a bounty of different RPG systems from the Cepheus Engine to Traveller 5 to FFG Star Wars to FATE games like Mindjammer or Atomic Robo to CORTEX Plus games like Firefly. Each of these games captures or compliments a setting in unique and positive ways – Mindjammer Traveller just doesn’t give me that same feeling.

 

#FourRPGs of Influence

Reading the #FourRPGs hashtag on Twitter is a great nostalgia trip, as well a thinking challenge. Here are the four RPGs that most influenced me.

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From tasteofsoundsfiles.wordpress.com

#1 – Classic Traveller (Published 1977 – discovered 1979)

Anybody remember the game store Fascination Corner in Arapahoe Mall in the Southeast suburbs of Denver? It was there I bought my first war-game, Panzer, by Yaquinto Games in 1979. Soon after that, I found a little black box with a very simple logo. The game was Traveller, and it was a role-playing game. Being a huge Star Wars fan, I just had to have the game. This was my gateway into RPGs. Although I had friends who played Dungeons & Dragons, I didn’t (fantasy didn’t catch my attention then, and to this day still doesn’t). I have never looked back since.

I actively played RPGs until the mid-late 1980’s. After college, my job and family didn’t really give me the time to play. Instead, I became a bit of a collector. I tried to keep up with Traveller (buying Marc Miller’s T4 and later the Mongoose Traveller versions). I tried other Somewhere in the mid-2000’s, I discovered DriveThruRPG, and started building an electronic collection of games that I had missed. Being a huge Traveller RPG fan, I stayed with GDW RPGs for the longest time. Sure, I dabbled in other systems (like the James Bond 007 RPG), but I really tried to stay away from Dungeons & Dragons. I had tried my hand at D20 Modern, invested heavily in the Star Wars: Saga Edition, and even looked at Savage Worlds, but none of then really captured my interest.

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From en.battlestarwiki.org

#2 – Battlestar Galactica (Published and discovered 2007)

Being a huge fan of the show, I just had to have Margret Weis’ Battlestar Galactica RPG. I was immediately sold on what is now known as the Cortex Classic System (which, in retrospect, is not so different from Savage Worlds). The Battlestar Galactica RPG was a major turning point for me because it was with this game that I truly embraced designs beyond the Classic Traveller system. The Plot Points system, i.e. a tangible game currency for the players to influence the story, was a major break from my previous gaming philosophy. I realized that I was too fixated on systems like Classic Traveller, with its many sub-games, which is very wargame-like and not actually a great storytelling engine. I continued to follow the Cortex system, and these days really enjoy the Firefly RPG using the Cortex Plus system.

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From en.wikipedia.org

#3 – Star Wars: Edge of the Empire (Published and discovered 2013)

While Battlestar Galactica started me on the path to narrative RPG play, I didn’t truly arrive until Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. I had got the core rule book and the Beginner’s Game and tried to play with my boys. But at first I just didn’t “get it.” What do all those funny dice really mean? One day I discovered the Order 66 podcast, and listened to their advice on Triumph and Despair. At that moment it all clicked. From then, I was sold on the the system and strongly believe that this game is the best marriage of theme and gameplay. That said, I have to say that the later volumes of this game system, Age of Rebellion and Force & Destiny don’t hold my interest as much as Edge of the Empire does.

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From evilhat.com

#4 –Atomic Robo (Published and discovered 2014)

After Edge of the Empire, I started looking for other narrative RPGs. Somehow, I happened across a copy of Atomic Robo. I picked up the game (mostly on a whim) but after reading it was so intrigued by the gaming possibilities. As fortune would have it, I also discovered a Bundle of Holding that had many FATE products. I discovered I had been missing out on a great game system. Now, in addition to Atomic Robo, I enjoy Diaspora (FATE 3.0) and Mindjammer (FATE Core). I have even played a few games using FATE Accelerated with the boys, much to their (and my) enjoyment.

Truth be told, these days I pay much more attention to the “game engine” than the actual game. I admit that my favorite “game engine” these days is FATE Core. That said, I still enjoy Traveller (and even the much-maligned Traveller 5) although the newest Mongoose Traveller Second Edition is not impressing me.

#TravellerRPG 2nd Edition Core Rulebook Release

This week Mongoose Publishing dropped the release version of their Mongoose Traveller RPG 2nd Edition Core Rulebook. This is the final edition of the Beta that came out last September that I previously blogged about here, here and here. Of my many concerns with this new edition, today I will only talk about the pricing strategy.

Mongoose offered the Beta rules for $20. For this price one got the Core Rulebook, High Guard (starship construction rules in a .doc draft), Central Supply Catalogue (equipment in a.doc draft), some deck plans , a character sheet, and an adventure. The purchase price of the Beta was good towards the purchase of the final release edition. When the final release dropped this week it retailed for $29.99; so after the voucher one had to pony-up an additional $9.99 to buy the book (electronic version only). As I said before, I expected to pay an additional cost since Mongoose always seems to be on the expensive side of publishers.

Using DriveThruRPG, I looked to compare prices of other similar genre corebooks. I found that Mongoose is indeed priced very high. The Traveller Core Rulebook is 241 pages meaning it has a per-page cost of 12.4 cents. The Firefly RPG Corebook (Cortex Plus system) is 364 pages selling for $19.99 or 5.5 cents per page. Mindjammer (Fate Core system now but after its Kickstarter campaign will get at Mongoose Traveller version) sells 500 pages for $26.99 or 5.4 cents per page. A personal favorite of mine is Diaspora (Fate Core system) which sells 270 pages for $12.99 or 4.7 cents per page. Even the Traveller 5 (T5 system) tome of 759 pages selling at a whooping $34.95 (!) works out to “only” 4.6 cents per page. The price disparity is just as bad even if one looks at “generic” corebooks like Cortex Plus Hackers Guide ($19.99 for 264 pages – or 7.5 cents per page), Savage Worlds Deluxe ($9.99 for 160 pages or 6.2 cents per page) or worse yet Fate Core (“Pay What You Want” or around $5.00 for 308 pages – a measly 1.6 cents per page)!

So what does the $29.99 for the Traveller Core Rulebook get you? The download contains the Core Rulebook (both full color and B&W printer-friendly), deck plans (not labeled as nice as the Beta set), a subsection map (blank but with a legend that is not useful if you are non-Imperium), and a character sheet (no color and again not as nice as the Beta set).

Unlike Firefly, Diaspora, Traveller 5, or Mindjammer, Mongoose Traveller 2.0 is not fully playable with the core rulebook only. Judging from the text on p. 4 of the Core Rulebook, in the future one will have to purchase High Guard to get the ship construction rules, Tour of the Imperium if one wants the setting of the Third Imperium, the Central Supply Catalogue for ironmongery and various equipment, and The Vehicle Handbook for vehicles. Adventure modules will also be sold separately. So while one could play “with the corebook only” in reality it will be necessary to purchase High Guard to even come close to having a functional core set of rules. It will be interesting to the price point of these future products. In Mongoose Traveller First Edition, Book 2: High Guard currently costs 9.7 cents per page. The far superior (IMHO) third-party publisher Gypsy Knight Games sells The Anderson & Felix Guide to Naval Architecture (a High Guard-like book used in their Clement Sector setting) for 8.7 cents per page.

I am sure some will cry foul and say my comparison purely on the basis of per-page cost is unfair. The new Traveller Core Rulebook is in full color similar to Firefly but unlike Diaspora or Traveller 5 or Mindjammer. It certainly has more art than Diaspora or maybe even Traveller 5. After listening to many podcasts I have had it drilled into me that the most expensive part of an RPG publication is the art. I find it difficult to imagine that the art in the new book is of such quality or quantity that it raised the price that much higher than its competition.

At the end of the day I am reminded that I had previously sworn off buying Mongoose Traveller products. On the basis of cost alone, I am not sure I got a great bargain. In future posts, I will look closer at the game mechanics and the content of the Traveller Core Rulebook to help me judge if I got a really good bargain or not.