#SundaySummary – Turkey Day 2021 with @ADragoons @hexsides @hollandspiele @HuzzahHobbies #CepheusEngine #TravellerRPG @USNIBooks @compassgamesllc @Toadkillerdog @gmtgames

Happy Thanksgiving!

The week was a bit slow in Casa RockyMountainNavy. This is the first holiday we celebrated in our “new” nuclear family configuration since Eldest RMN Boy is in Tech School for the U.S. Air Farce. It also follows three months with the Mother-in-Law in town and a simultaneous major health challenge for Mrs. RMN (not COVID…but while the vaccine might of protected it appears it brought on other health issues). So we have much to be thankful for. For my part, much of the Christmas shopping is also complete, at least as the major presents for each RMN Boy and especially Mrs. RMN go.

Wargaming

I took some down time this week to work on a First Impressions piece on The Battle of the Bulge (Avalon Hill, 1965). If I get the photos together you’ll see that later this week. I also was inspired by D-Day at Omaha Beach from Decision Games (Fourth Printing, 2020) to look at wargame maps and data. I need to work up some photos and run it by Brant at Armchair Dragoons to see if it meets his standards. Finally, I owe designer Brad Smith a deep apology since I volunteered to playtest Warsaw Pact Air Commander (coming in the future from Hollandspiele) but am very delinquent in sending him anything. I made an effort this week to change that.

Boardgaming

Huzzah Hobbies, my FLGS, had a 50% off sale this weekend. I didn’t make it up there but the RMN Boys did and sent me a photo of the shelves and asked for suggestions. We’ll see if anything shows up under the tree this Christmas.

Role Playing Games

I messed around a bit with Cepheus Deluxe, the latest version of Cepheus Engine from Stellagama Publishing and the modern take on the Traveller RPG.

Books

A long-forgotten backorder from Naval Institute Press arrived this week. Fighting the Fleet: Operational Art and Modern Fleet Combat argues that naval concepts are often diluted or lost when too much jointness is introduced. It also talks about the use of Operations Research, which I see as adjacent to wargaming. I need to finish this book and then use it to consider wargames like John Gorkowski’s South China Sea and Indian Ocean Region from Compass Games as well as the naval modules for any of Mitchell Land’s Next War series from GMT Games.

Cepheus Deluxe (Stellagama Publishing, 2021) – The new heroic #TravellerRPG

Cepheus Deluxe is the latest iteration of the Cepheus Engine roleplaying game rules for 2d6 science fiction adventures. These new rules are the latest refinement of a game system that traces its heritage back to Marc Miller’s Classic Traveller RPG from Game Designers’ Workshop in 1977. Cepheus Deluxe increases player agency in generation of larger-than-life characters and delivers more cinematic action but by doing so moves the Cepheus Engine away from play evocative of “ordinary” adventurers and closer to heroic science fiction characters and action taken from today’s pop culture.


Traveller, by Marc Miller and published by Game Designers’ Workshop in the late 1970s, was my first roleplaying game (RPG). I have played Traveller continuously since 1979—over 40 years. Through those years I played several different versions of Traveller, and missed many others too. In the mid-2000s, Mongoose Publishing licensed Traveller and published Mongoose Traveller, 1st Edition using an Open Game License (OGL). However, when Mongoose released a second edition in the mid-2010s, the license rules changed, and (in my opinion) not for the betterment of the Traveller community. Fortunately, there were enterprising publishers, led by Jason “Flynn” Kemp at Samardan Press who took the Traveller System Reference Document (SRD) and OGL and released a “generic” version of the rules called Cepheus Engine. The Cepheus Engine rules are the Traveller RPG rules sans the Third Imperium setting which both Mongoose Publishing and Far Future Enterprises (Marc Miller) designate as IP. The latest version of the Cepheus Engine rules are known as Cepheus Deluxe. written by a team led by Omer Golan-Joel from Stellagama Publishing.

Old is New or New is Old?

Cepheus Deluxe is simultaneously a spiritual successor to the original Traveller RPG (now commonly known as Classic Traveller) as well as a distinctly different game. The major differences (evolution?) in the rules systems are related to the core mechanic, character generation (chargen), and more cinematic combat. Some of the “new” rules were seen in previous versions of Traveller, such as Mongoose Traveller 1st and 2nd Editions, as well as earlier or variant versions of Cepheus Engine. However, their assembly in Cepheus Engine delivers a more “heroic” game.

Core Mechanic – 2d6…plus

The Classic Traveller core mechanic—roll 2d6 8+ for success—generally remains in Cepheus Deluxe but with more modifiers and task difficulty. Whereas in Classic Traveller the only die modifier (DM) to a skill check was from skill levels, in Cepheus Deluxe you have DMs for characteristics and skill levels. along with a host of other environmental and situational modifiers. These extra modifiers appeared in various Traveller and Cepheus Engine versions before now.

The major new addition to character generation in Cepheus Deluxe that heavily influences task throws is Traits. “Traits are unique features of competent and driven characters…each character typically has one Trait…” (p. 41). When using a Trait, players use Advantage, which means one rolls 3d6 and chooses the best two when making a task roll.

Although it is an optional rule, if used Hero Points can dramatically shift the style of play in Cepheus Deluxe. This rule is expressly designed to enable play of “larger-than-life science fiction heroes” (p. 12). Players start each session with 2 Hero Points and share a common pool of points equal to the number of players present. Each time a task throw results in an Effect (difference of roll and target number) of +6 or greater, the individual Hero Pool increases by 1. Each time a task throw has an Effect of -6 or greater, the group Hero Pool increases by 1. Hero Points are used to:

  • Reroll a single die throw
  • Force the Referee to reroll a non-player character die roll
  • Reroll a throw on Trauma Surgery.

It’s MY Character

One of the greatest features (not a bug) of Classic Traveller has always been character generation (chargen). In Classic Traveller, chargen is quite literally a game with lots of wristage; throw to generate stats, throw to enter careers, throw for skill during a term, throw for promotion, throw for survival, throw to reenlist, and throw when mustering out. Cepheus Deluxe attempts to keep the core lifepath development system of Traveller but updates it by giving the players a bit more agency while calling on less wristage. During chargen in Cepheus Deluxe players will:

  • Roll for characteristics but assign them as desired (long an optional rule)
  • Choose a Homeworld and associated skills (adopted from previous versions)
  • Select a career; no enlistment rolls
  • Pick your own skills during a term; no rolling on tables
    • Optionally, one can roll 1d6 for the number of years in a term vice using the “standard” 4-year
  • Promotions automatically occur in certain terms (subject to modification by Career Events)
  • During a term, one rolls on a Life Events Table and, if necessary, the Injury Table
  • Roll for aging effects at end of Term 4 (tied to terms, not a specific age)
  • Roll for Mustering Out Benefits, but a roll can be exchanged for a promotion
  • Select one Trait for every two terms served (rounded up)

Chargen in Cepheus Deluxe includes optional rules for switching careers. There is another optional rule called “Iron Man!” where one treats any injury as player death—a call-back to Classic Traveller and its famous “you can die in character generation.”

Another major change in Cepheus Deluxe during chargen is the calculation of two new character stats: Stamina and Lifeblood. These stats are used in combat. Stamina, representing “toughness,” is the sum of the player character’s (PC) Endurance characteristic plus Athletics skill. Lifeblood, or “resistance to injury,” is equal to twice their Stamina.

Action for Heroes

Classic Traveller, indeed most version of Traveller or Cepheus Engine, can be very deadly for player characters—after all, the combat system was developed with wargame designer Frank Chadwick! To illustrate both the similarities and differences let’s look at a combat situation. From Classic Traveller we will use the sample character Captain Jamison from pages 24-25 aboard his Type A merchant. Little does he know, pirate captain “Mad Jackie” Botrel from the combat example in Cepheus Deluxe page 93 has snuck aboard and is trying to take over his ship!

Early RPGs were just skirmish wargames, right? (Courtesy @licensedtodill)

Both Jamison and Jackie are waiting to go thru a door when it opens and both see one another. While both are surprised neither has “surprise” by the rules. Since Classic Traveller does not use Initiative rules like those found in Cepheus Deluxe, we will invoke the Cepheus Deluxe optional rule for Simultaneous Combat. As both characters are already at short range Jamison’s “move” is to draw his cutlass followed by an attack. At the same time, Jackie will charge and use her internal cyberblade to attack. So begins this Melee Combat:

  • Jamison must roll an 8+ to hit and has a DM+1 from his Cutlass-1 skill, a DM-2 for the Synthsilk (Mesh?) armor that Jackie is wearing, and a further DM+2 for short range making his roll 2d6+1.
  • Jackie charges into close range and must roll Melee Combat/STR 8+ with a DM+2 from the charge. Her strength of 6 grants no modifiers but her Melee Combat-3 skill gives her a DM+3. Usually armor reduces hits but since Jamison uses an older rules set without armor protection detailed, we invoke the optional rule Armor as a Penalty to Hit and give Jackie a further DM-1 for the Cloth Armor Jamison is wearing. Total DM is +5. Because she is using her Internal Cybernetic Blade, she can invoke her Signature Weapon Trait and roll 3d6 and use the best two die.
  • Jamison rolls a 7 which after DM is an 8—hit!
  • Jackie rolls 3-4-4 of which she uses 4-4 (8) and DM+5 for a modified roll of 13; hit with Effect +5.
  • Jamison’s cutlass is 2d6+4 damage; average rolls give it 11 wound points.
  • Jackie’s Internal Blade is 2d6; average 7 points plus the Effect+5 for 12 wound points.
  • The wounds to Jamison are randomly determined to hit his Endurance (9) first. This reduces his Endurance to 0 with three remaining points spread against Strength (-1) and Dexterity (-2);Jamison falls unconscious.
  • The 11 wound points against Jackie are reduced by 8 from her Synthsilk Armor. The remaining 3 points are applied to her Stamina (Endurance + Athletics = 8) which leaves her standing with “a mere flesh wound.”

Of note, in Cepheus Deluxe, once Stamina is exhausted wounds are then applied to Lifeblood (Stamina x2). Game effects from the loss of Lifeblood include:

  • When Lifeblood > half rating the PC has a Minor Wound and a DM-1 to all actions
  • When Lifeblood < half rating the PC has a Serious Wound with a DM-2 to all actions and must roll to remain conscious
  • When Lifeblood reaches zero the PC is Mortally Wounded and will die within an our unless they undergo Trauma Surgery.

Using the assumption that a character has average physical characteristics of 7, and assuming they have at least Combat and Athletics skills of 1 (“Employable”), in Cepheus Deluxe it likely takes something on the order of three or four hits—or more when wearing armor—to incapacitate a PC. While one certainly doesn’t want to hang around in a sustained firefight in Cepheus Deluxe, the combat potential of a PC is reduced at a cinematically slower pace than many previous versions of Traveller or Cepheus Engine (and certainly much slower than Classic Traveller).

“Holding Out for a Hero”

In Classic Traveller and so many later versions of Traveller and Cepheus Engine, character generation delivered what I call “everyday” characters using a somewhat random system. While one may start chargen with a basic character concept, the system sometimes (often times?) delivered a far different result. For myself, I enjoyed taking these “everyday” characters and trying to build a story and adventures around them. The increased player agency in Cepheus Deluxe challenges my basic assumptions at the start of chargen. The increased player agency in chargen from Cepheus Deluxe empowers players to take a character concept and flesh it out. While there is still some randomness and uncertainty it is limited and can challenge, but not derail, the making of a character. The ability to select your own skills and then acquire Traits with their powerful Advantage roll makes characters in Cepheus Engine more heroic than everyday. In some roleplaying games it is a conceit going into the game that players are “heroes” or extraordinary PCs. This was certainly not the conceit in Classic Traveller, but it is more popular in other systems. For example, The Expanse Roleplaying Game (Green Ronin, 2019) in “Character Creation, Step 2: Abilities” explicitly defines characters as “extraordinary” as compared to non-adventurous ordinary people:

AGE System characters are defined by nine abilities. They’re scored on a numeric scale from -2 (quite poor) to 4 (truly outstanding). A score of 1 is considered average for Player Characters and other extraordinary people. 0 is average for everyday individuals, the sort of folks who avoid having adventures.

The Expanse Roleplaying Game, p. 25

The core mechanic in Cepheus Deluxe, building upon character generation and taken in combination with more cinematic action and the optional Hero Points rules, certainly enables play of “larger-than-life science fiction heroes.” I am very likely in the minority here, but my preferred style of RPG play is decidedly “ordinary” vice “extraordinary.” Looking back over various rule sets in my collection I often enjoy taking an ordinary character and throwing them into extraordinary adventures:

  • Classic Traveller (GDW, 1977): “Everyday” characters usually living on the edge.
  • Behind Enemy Lines (FASA, 1982): Everyday GI Joe in combat.
  • Star Trek (FASA, 1982): While Star Fleet officers are highly trained, they often needed plenty of luck too.
  • James Bond 007 (Victory Games, 1983): Anybody can be spy, but a 00 has the best gadgets.
  • Paranoia (West End Games, 1984): Six decidedly average (if not slightly abnormal) clones were never enough.
  • Twilight: 2000 (GDW, 1984): In how many games can one stat themselves out?
  • Traveller: 2300 aka 2300 AD (GDW, 1986): Hard sci-fi Traveller in an unforgiving universe.
  • Battlestar Galactica (Margaret Weiss, 2007): Humans on the run from frakking Cylons!
  • Mongoose Traveller (Mongoose Publishing, 2008): Classic Traveller with an OGL
  • Serenity/Firefly (Margaret Weiss 2008/2014): “Find a crew, find a job, keep flying.”
  • Diaspora (Fate 3.0) (VSCA Publishing, 2009): Traveller using FATE 3.0 rules
  • Star Wars Roleplaying: Edge of the Empire (Fantasy Flight Games, 2013): “May the Force be with you”…but on low power.
  • Star Wars Roleplaying: Age of Rebellion (Fantasy Flight Games, 2014): Think Rogue One.
  • Cepheus Engine/The Clement Sector (Gypsy Knights Games (now Independence Games), 2014): Small-ship Classic Traveller alternate universe.
  • Cepheus Engine/Orbital 2100 (Zozer Games, 2016): Hard sublight sci-fi.
  • Cepheus Engine/Hostile (Zozer Games, 2017): “In space nobody can hear you scream.”
  • I hear there is a Cowboy Bebop RPG in development; looking forward to Cowboys just trying to catch a bounty to buy birthday presents for their kids and not be hungry for noodles like Spike.

In many ways I should not be surprised by the Cepheus Deluxe authors moving the rules towards a more heroic version of science fiction roleplaying. Thanks to corporate overlords like Marvel, superheroes seem everywhere. If you look at the RPG systems I enjoy, you will notice that most of those games are not superhero or high magic or space fantasy. My sources of inspiration for science fiction roleplaying overlap to some degree with those listed in Cepheus Deluxe, with a notable difference being my lack interest from computer games.

Does all this mean I dislike Cepheus Deluxe? Hardly. Rules like Hero Points are optional, and as you can see with the example above there is a high degree of backwards compatibility baked into the system. There are more than a few rules, like chases in combat or the entire Social Encounter chapter that are vey nice. More likely than not, I’ll probably use a character generation system tailored to a setting I prefer to play in like The Clement Sector or Orbital 2100 or Hostile but use the rules for Cepheus Deluxe in adventure play.

At the end of the day, I will certainly try to play Cepheus Deluxe. I am not sure I will add Hero Points. I feel that the RockyMountainNavy Boys would like the more heroic play. For myself…I just want ordinary PCs in extraordinary adventures. I’ll hold out for my heroes!


Postscript: There is one further discussion I feel need be mentiones and that is the inevitable comparisons of Cepheus Deluxe to Mongoose Traveller 2nd Ed. Yes, the two game systems are very similar, dare I say almost identical. The similarities are not only in the rules but in the layout of the rule books and even similar artwork. I see two major differences: price and licensing. For price one just cannot beat Cepheus Deluxe which at $9.99 for pdf and $16.99 for pdf+ B&W softcover is a real bargain. Mongoose Traveller will set you back $30 for the pdf alone, the most recent version which is an update to the 2nd Edition rules (although called an “update” Mongoose wants you to buy a whole new rulebook). Secondly, there is the licensing issues I alluded to before. Suffice it to say the Cepheus Engine community is open and very welcoming, whereas the MgT community must live with a publishing overlord that takes seizes individual IP just because you might happen to play in “their” sandbox.


Feature image courtesy Ian Stead

#SundaySummary – New arrivals need a Quartermaster General so not lost in Forgotten Waters while reading Game Wizards of North Korea (@AresGamesSrl @PlaidHatGames @compassgamesllc @docetist @TravellerNews #TravellerRPG @toadkillerdog @gmtgames)

Wargames

New ArrivalIan Brody’s Quartermaster General WW2 (Ares Games, Second Edition 2020). Described by some as “Card driven RISK” that’s an unfair characterization as the game is much more fun than it looks. This is also supposed to be a decent 3-player game playable in 2-hours or less making it a great candidate for the weekend Family Game Night. We already have Quartermaster General: Cold War (PSC Games, 2018) which we enjoy playing so we look forward to going back to the “classic” version.

Quartermaster General WW2. Photo by RMN

Boardgames

New ArrivalForgotten Waters (Plaid Hat Games, 2020). Another candidate for Weekend Family Game Night. Also my first foray into the “Crossroads System” as well as my first “app-assisted” boardgame. I traded for my copy of Pacific Tide: The United States versus Japan, 1941-45 (Compass Games, 2019). I like Pacific Tide, but Forgotten Waters will be played with both RMN Boys vice one at a time. That said, when it comes to cooperative games the RMN Boys prefer classic Pandemic (Z-Man Games, 2008) and then the “Forbidden“-series (Forbidden Island and Forbidden Skies specifically) so we will see how unforgettable this one becomes.

Forgotten Waters. Photo by RMN

Role Playing Games

New ArrivalGame Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons by Jon Peterson (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2021). This is definitely a hobby business history and NOT a history of D&D as a game. So all you Edition Wars fighters out there looking for Jon’s vote need to look elsewhere. I wish Jon would do the history of Marc Miller and Traveller someday. I know, not as dramatic but nonetheless of intense interest to a Traveller RPG fan like me.

Game Wizards. Photo by RMN

Professional Wargames

The Defense Intelligence Agency released the 2021 edition of North Korea Military Power: A Growing Regional and Global Threat. This product is a must-read for any professional wargamer that wants to include North Korea as a threat. Given that it’s unclassified and for public release, even commercial wargame designers like Mitchell Land can use it to update Next War: Korea (GMT Games).

Courtesy DIA

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2021 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Sunday Summary – Go with the flow of #wargames & #boardgames? Finding Foundation and running blades in LA with @FreeLeaguePub // @FoundationDietz @stuarttonge @gmtgames @compassgamesllc @MultiManPub #roleplayinggames

Shipping woes…slowly ending?

Slowly, ever so slowly, it looks like the flow of wargame and boardgame pre-orders is starting to move again. Let’s review what I know about my incoming games.

At least two games I have on Kickstarter are moving forward and reported being a step closer to delivery. 1979: Revolution in Iran (Kickstarter) is supposed to arrive to Jim Dietz at Dietz Foundation for in early October for immediate turnaround to fulfillment. 2 Minutes to Midnight (Kickstarter) by designer Stuart Tonge opened the pledge manager this week. However, not all is coming up totally roses—AuZtralia Revenge of the Old Ones and TaZmania! (Kickstarter) reported that production started but they will miss the planned November delivery due to the draconian (my description) lockdowns in New Zealand.

I am hoping that GMT Games finds a way to get the four titles that are at “At the Printer- No Ship Date Yet” moving. The latest update from Gene tells me that Tank Duel Expansion 1: North Africa is in a container somewhere between China and California and will be charging early October. Hopefully this means that backlog will work off over the next few months. I look forward to a regular GMT P500 delivery schedule.

I might also be better informed if I watched the Compass Games Live / Town Hall on YouTube every week but it goes live at an inconvenient time for me to easily catch it. I have five titles on preorder form Compass and, as best I can tell, none are scheduled for delivery through the end of this year (deep sigh).

My lone Multi-Man Publishing title on preorder shows that the preorder goal was passed. I guess that means it is moving forward in production, but when that is remains a mystery to me.

Boardgame Profits

The big boardgame industry news this week is that Asmodee is looking for a buyer...and they want 2 BILLION Euros. This past year+ of COVID certainly has seen the boardgame industry do well, but with the current raw material shortages and shipping challenges is it truly sustainable at those high levels? I almost feel like the VC group that owns Asmodee is trying to take their money and run. Remember, one of the oldest adages in business is“Buyer beware.”

Foundation and Role Playing Games

I rarely watch TV these days, but I did indulge in the first two episodes of Apple TV’s new series, Foundation:

I thought about rereading the books before the series started but I am glad I didn’t as I am looking at the series with (sorta) fresh eyes and just taking it in. I am especially enthralled with the world-building. I read articles about how the producers were trying to establish a look for the series that is neither Star Wars or Star Trek (Warning: Minor spoilers at the link). If I was put on the spot, I would say that there are many elements of Marc Miller’s Third Imperium setting for the Traveller roleplaying game. Or maybe it’s better to say there are many classic space opera elements in the Third Imperium and Foundation is just catching up. I have to admit I also enjoy watching the series with the RockyMountainNavy Boys who have not read the books (I know, Bad Dad!). They are taking it in without any preconceived notions. So far they like it, which is high praise from the hardcore Stars Wars fans they are.

From Foundation to Blade Runner

What’s this? Hot on the heels of ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game, Free League has announced publication of Bladerunner: The Roleplaying Game in 2022.

Free League put up a website which gives a few details about the new Bladerunner RPG. From a game mechanism perspective it appears that Free League’s Year Zero Engine will be used like it was in ALIEN: The RPG but with some new wrinkles:

The core game and its line of expansions will push the boundaries of investigative gameplay in tabletop RPGs, giving players a range of tools to solve an array of cases far beyond retiring Replicants. Beyond the core casework, the RPG will both in setting and mechanics showcase key themes of Blade Runner – sci-fi action, corporate intrigue, existential character drama, and moral conflict – that challenge players to question your friends, empathize with your enemies, and explore the poisons and perseverance of hope and humanity during such inhumane times.

Bladerunner: The Roleplaying Game, The Game

Investigative RPG’s are an interesting subgenre of roleplaying games. Some game systems, like Gumshoe from Pelgrane Press, are designed from the ground up for investigations. Other systems rely on a form of “social combat” game mechanism to handle player vs. PC interactions. Indeed, The Expanse Roleplaying Game (Green Ronin, 2019) has a separate mode of play called Social Encounters that covers investigations. It will be interesting to see how Free League adapts the Year Zero Engine to handle Bladerunner-style investigations.

Although I didn’t totally enjoy ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game I am nonetheless happy to see Free League lean into the 1980’s sci-fi IPs and turn them into RPGs. Philip K. Dick’s short story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” was the basis for the movie Bladerunner and is a very deep story. I hope the game does real justice to the IP.

Sunday Summary – From Reading Charlies to #wargame #roleplayinggames slamming ALIENS to #boardgame Tiny Epic Kingdoms with @ADragoons groundzerogames.net hammers-slammers.com @freeleaguepub @Gamelyn_Games dietzfoundation.org @SchilMil

Humbled

All great reads…

It appears that the article that I wrote for the Armchair Dragoons, “An Active Defense of Fifth Corps: The Soviet Breakthrough at Fulda, Central Front Series, Volume 1” is in a second round of voting for the 2020 Charles S Roberts Awards. Thanks to all who voted so far. Like I told Brant, the only way to be wrong is NOT to read all the articles.

Wargames Cross Over with Roleplaying Games

My published thoughts this last week focused on why Traveller: The Role Playing Game is the best way to “wargame” David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers universe. Comments about how RPGs are basically skirmish wargames will be addressed in a future Wargame Wednesday.

This weekend I did a deeper comparison of Hammer’s Slammers wargames by digging into how Striker II (GDW, 1993), Dirtside II (Ground Zero Games, 1993), and Hammer’s Slammers: The Crucible (Pireme Publishing, 2010) stack up against each other. Look for these thoughts in Wargame Wednesday.

Roleplaying Games Cross Over with Wargames

I’ve been exploring Free League Publishing’s ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game this week. Thoughts coming in next week’s #RPGThursday. **Spoiler – A skirmish wargame**

Bored Enough for a Boardgame

Not really, but we finally got a boardgame to the table. On a weeknight no less. This summer I traded for Tiny Epic Kingdoms (Gamelyn Games, 2014) which is a really simple action-selection game. My Humans took on the Undead of RockyMountainNavy Jr. and the Dwarves of RockyMountainNavy T. Our first play took more than the 30 minutes advertised but was rather fun. RMN T took the win as often does by laying low and breaking away at the end. RMN Jr. gave it a thumbs up. I expect to see this one land on the table regularly as a quick weeknight after dinner adventure.

A Slow Ship From China

International shipping challenges continue to, uh, challenge the wargame/boardgame industry. Several of my Kickstarter projects updated with news this week. It’s mixed messaging.

#TravellerRPG Tuesday – Shipping Out in The Clement Sector under HOSTILE Conditions with @IndependenceGa6 & Zozer Games

New Classes

It’s been a while since I picked up any new Traveller RPG materials. With summer in full swing I decided to rectify that situation and picked up four ship books from Independence Games. These ships all are part of their The Clement Sector/Earth Sector settings where the former is a personal favorite of mine. As I noted before, The Clement Sector is a “small ship” universe. Thanks to the limitations of the Zimm Drive (The Clement Sector version of the Jump Drive), ships over 2,500-dTons risk bad things using their Zimm Drive. In The Clement Sector, the TL10-12 Zimm Drives effectively cap ships at 4,999-dTons. That said, these latest books show a creep towards larger designs. Which really means I need to go back and reread Tech Update: 2350 and refresh myself on larger ships in Earth Sector.

(Update –Earth Sector has rules for TL13 Zimm Drives that boosts ship sizes.)

Copeline-class Merchant Vessel

The Copeline-class merchant vessel is quickly becoming the most popular ship in Earth Sector!  Created in 2348 by Corolys Shipbuilding Company, the ship has overtaken such venerable designs as the Rucker and Atlas among merchants in Earth Sector.

The Copeline is a 300-tonne ship with modules which can be switched out to make the ship into a freighter, a passenger liner, a scout, or a combination of all of those!  This versatility has made it the chosen ship for independent operators and small shipping corporations.

Ad copy, Copeline-class Merchant Vessel

Opportunity-class Light Trader

Introduced into service in 2330, the Opportunity-class was Corolys Shipbuilding Company’s entry into the light trader market. The designers of the ship focused on high thrust in-system drive and maximizing the cargo space in the smallest starship hull size available.

The Opportunity is a 100-tonne light trader which is found throughout Earth Sector.  This book contains all seven variants of the ship including the Maximus-class (with greater cargo capacity), the Dispatch-class (which is used as a fast courier), and the Star Reach-class (which has enough fuel for two transits).

Ad copy, Opportunity-class Light Trader

Lion-class Battlecruiser

Designed to provide heavy support for independent cruiser squadrons, act as cruiser squadron flagships, to undertake escort duties and to engage in commerce raiding, the Lion-class battlecruisers of the Royal Navy are recognized as being the most modern capital ships in service with any national navy. 

Taking advantage of TL13 innovations in Earth Sector, the 5000 tonne Lion-class battlecruiser is massive and armed to the teeth. This large ship stands ready to defend the British colonies and take the battle to those who would threaten their holdings. 

Ad copy, Lion-class Battlecruiser

This book draws features several new weapons systems; specifically, “the British Space Systems Type 15 Voidswarm Capital Ship Torpedo and the British Space Systems Type 21 Voidlance Capital Ship Torpedo”.

Atlanta-class Carrier

The latest book published just this week is Atlanta-class Carrier.

One of the largest ships in Earth Sector, the Atlanta-class carrier is the main capital ship of the Southern Alliance Navy. The Atlanta-class carriers are often the centerpiece of a strike group and stand ready to launch their fighters. 

The Atlanta-class carrier is a 3800 tonne vessel which is heavily armed and armored.  The Atlanta also carries 50 F-40B Tomcat fighters and 15 B-44A Archangel strike craft.  In short, the Atlanta is prepared for action. 

Ad copy, Atlanta-class Carrier

This book also has rules for small craft weapons such as missiles, rapid fire railguns, lasers, and particle beams. 

As you can tell, there is a wide variety of ships here. From a very nice “adventuring” 100-dTon ship to a 300-dTon merchant for trading there are many story possibilities. The larger military ships are very suitable as backdrops to adventure.

HOSTILE Warning

Speaking of adventure, I also took the opportunity to pick up a couple of free adventure modules from Zozer Games set in their HOSTILE universe. For HOSTILE, think Aliens meets Blade Runner meets Outland. HOSTILE is more of a gritty, hard sci-fi setting. These HOSTILE Situation Reports are free one-page RPG NPCs or adventures seeds that can be added to your game.

  1. Ghost Ship – “A mayday signal draws the PCs to a lonely gas giant, and a starship in an extremely low, atmosphere-grazing orbit. There’s no response … can the crew be saved? Are they even still alive?”
  2. Snakehead – “Meet Baosheng, a veteran Snakehead operating in the Off-World colonies. His syndicate specialises in techno-crime and the theft of shuttle craft. He has a job you might like … it’s just a pity you’re a deniable asset and he is posing as a legit businessman. What could go wrong?”

Feature image courtesy weirdsciencefiction.blogspot.com

Reading for Roleplaying…or #Wargame? – The Elusive Shift: How Role-Playing Games Forged Their Identity by Jon Peterson (@docetist) – or – I’m a Munchkin Grognard (#RPG #TravellerRPG)

My first role-playing game (RPG) was Traveller from game Designers’ Workshop back in 1979. In the same little store where I discovered my first wargame, Panzer by Jim Day from Yaquinto Publishing (1979), I found a small, very plain black box with three Little Black Books inside. So started my RPG adventures which would parallel my wargame experiences. As I was a solid military history reader and generally avoided fantasy science fiction in those days I never felt the urge to play Dungeons & Dragons like a few of my friends. But that was OK; we played the heck out of Traveller for RPGs and Star Fleet Battles (Task Force Games, 1979+) for wargaming back in those days. All of which means I entered the world of RPGs without realizing that I was amongst defining moments of the hobby. The Elusive Shift: How Role-Playing Games Forged Their Identity by Jon Peterson provides a “lost” history of how Dungeons & Dragons and other games came to define a new genre of gaming – the role-playing game.

As Peterson points out, Dungeons & Dragons (1974) did not call itself a role-playing game. Indeed, the cover stated it was, “rules for fantastic medieval wargames campaigns” (Peterson, 15). Starting from this observation, Peterson in The Elusive Shift takes the reader on a historical survey of how role-playing games came to be defined; or, as Mr. Peterson says:

It is not the ambition of this study to settle on a tidy dictionary defintion of role-playing game but instead to show historically how the game community came to grapple with agreeing on one.

Peterson, The Elusive Shift, p. 19

A Munchkin Grognard Traveller Perspective

Like I already stated, my first foray into RPGs was through Traveller, not D&D. At the same time I was entering the wargaming hobby. Forty years later I consider myself a wargame Grognard, that of an “Old Guard” of players who have been involved in the hobby a long time. So it was interesting to realize that in RPG terms of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s that I was a “munchkin.” As Peterson relates:

It was around this time that the pejorative term munchkin entered the role players’ vocabulary. The Wargamer’s Encyclopedic Dictionary (1981) defines a munchkin as “a young wargamer, generally under 14 or 16 years of age,” in contrast to a grognard, “a wargamer who has been in the hobby a very long time.”

Peterson, The Elusive Shift, p. 232

As I was 12 years old when I got my first wargame and RPG, I was actually a very young munchkin which is probably why I missed out on so much of the background fighting over what the RPG hobby was; I simply did not have the money to subscribe to all those newsletters or magazines where the discussion was taking place! Even if I did subscribe, as a sixth-grader the discussion may even had gone right over my head (figuratively and literally).

Through reading The Elusive Shift I also came to discover just how much of an influence Traveller has on my definition of an RPG. Peterson goes so far to call Traveller a “transcending design” (p. 173) and devotes an Intermezzo in his book to the game. Since Traveller was my first, and for several years my only, RPG* when I read the “rules” I accepted them as “the way” without question. Peterson points out that how one plays Traveller is a matter of player preference; “There are three basic ways to play Traveller: solitaire, scenario, and campaign. Any of these three may be unsupervised (that is, without a referee; the players themselves administer the rules and manipulate the situation” (Traveller Book 1, p. 3). To this day I have no problem playing an RPG solo; it has always been an option from the beginning. I also have no problem setting up a one-shot scenario or digging into a campaign. Again, that has always been “just the way it is.” I also was very happy to see Jon Peterson call Traveller, “perhaps one of the most adaptable of the designs of the 1970s” (p. 173) though he says that because the game exemplifies the extremes of both open-ended (with a Gamemaster) and close-ended (no referee) systems. Without trying to ignite an “Edition Wars” argument discussion here I’ll just say that these days I am very happy with the Cepheus Engine version of Traveller which is very similar to the original Little Black Books Classic Traveller from decades ago.

In The Elusive Shift Peterson shows how Dungeons & Dragons grew out of both the wargaming and science fiction fan communities. Again, as I entered both genres of hobby gaming at the same time I didn’t really see any “legacy” issues . All of which means I never really got into the whole “D&D is a wargame” controversy discussion because RPGs and wargames were always two related-yet-distinct facets of hobby gaming to me.

To this day, the wargame community constantly grapples with the age-old question “What is a wargame?” Heck, even I took a stab at answering that question in an episode of the Mentioned in Dispatches podcast for the Armchair Dragoons. Peterson’s The Elusive Shift shows us how a closely related community grappled with a very similar defining issue. This book won’t give wargamers an answer to their question but it certainly can promote understanding of how the RPG community came to some agreement.

Coming together. In agreement. What a novel concept!

Citation

Peterson, Jon, The Elusive Shift: How Role-Playing Games Forged Their Identity, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2021 (Apple Books electronic edition)


*I’m not sure what my second RPG was, but it may have been Commando by SPI (1979) which Peterson notes is both a wargame AND and RPG. I know my copy has marked up charts where we tried to convert Commando tables for use in our Traveller activities. Behind Enemy Lines (1st Edition, FASA 1982) is clearly my next RPG after Traveller, though some might argue that it is more a skirmish-level wargame adventure guide than a “true” RPG.

#Wargame Wednesday – Searching for My Strategic #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 combat systems from the Classic Traveller-era (1977-1981).

The Traveller Combat System

Along this voyage of (re)discovery I came to the realization that there is no one single “Traveller Combat System.” Between 1977 and 1981 Game Designers’ Workshop (GDW) gave us EIGHT (8) different ground combat systems “For Use with TRAVELLER.” Broadly speaking, I see the eight systems divided into two broad categories; Strategic and Personal/Tactical. The eight systems, many found within their own games, are:

  • Imperium, Classic Traveller Game 0, 1977 (Strategic)
  • Traveller Combat System, found in Classic Traveller Book 1: Characters and Combat, 1977 (Personal)
  • Mercenary, 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 Strategic combat systems for the Traveller roleplaying game. Let us begin by going back to the beginnings of the RPG hobby in the mid-1970’s and a little corner of Indiana with a group calling themselves Game Designers’ Workshop (and pay attention to where the apostrophe is placed).

Strategic Traveller Wargames

Imperium – Empires in Conflict: Worlds in Balance (1977)

Imperium (GDW 1990 Edition)

Imperium is known as Classic Traveller Game 0. The number reflects the fact the design predates release of the Traveller RPG system. As author Shannon Applecline tells us in Designers and Dragons: The ’70s

Meanwhile, GDW was still playing with science-fiction designs. In 1975 and 1976 they worked on the prototype of a wargame called Imperium (1977). They finally published it in 1977 in a very different form, but in its original incarnation Imperium imagined a war between humans and many alien races, among them the lion-like Aslan, the bee-like Hivers, the dog-like Vargr and the mercenary Dorsai. Imperium also provided rules for individual characters — the sons of the leaders of the war — who progressed through individual careers and provided bonuses to armies based on the careers selected.

Both the alien races and the careers would be incorporated into GDW’s second and most notable RPG: Traveller.

Shannon Applecline, Designers and Dragons: The 70’s, Evil Hat Productions, 2014, p. 158

Here is how Imperium introduces itself:

lmperium is a science-fiction game about interstellar war. Several hundred years from now, Terra reaches the stars, only to find that they are already owned by a vast, sprawling interstellar empire: the Ziru Sirka (the Grand Empire of Stars or Imperium). The heavy hand of the lmperium and the expansionism of Earth lead naturally and inexorably to interstellar war. lmperium is a boardgame of that conflict.

Imperium Rule Book, p. 2

Imperium is what I term a grand strategic wargame. The scale of the game is six-month turns and 1/2 parsec (1.67 light years) per hex. If you are a Traveller RPG aficionado, you probably recognize the map scale is different and not the usual 1-parsec per hex. In keeping with the grand strategy design, Imperium includes rules for economics and both space and planetary warfare. The game actually has three distinct combat subsystems; “Space Combat,” “Planetary Surface/Space Interactions,” and “Surface Combat.” In this post I am focusing on the ground warfare aspects of the design found in the rules for “Surface Combat” in the core Rule Book starting on page 8.

If one makes it past the Space Combat and Planetary Surface/Space Interactions phases of an Imperium game turn (representing the deep and close-space battles) then a Surface Combat action may be fought. The combat mechanic here is the very traditional “battleline” where opponents are paired up. There is a very Avalon Hill War at Sea-like vibe to this combat mechanic and given WaS was published in 1975 is it possible the GDW designers took some inspiration?

In Imperium, Surface Combat begins with both players taking their forces and “pairing them off” against each other. If the attacker is unable to pair-off against all the defenders, no planetary assault is possible. If all combatants have been paired, any excess combatants can be doubled or even tripled up against. Optionally, forces not engaged can be “screened” and will not participate in the battle.

[As I reread the Surface Combat rules closely, I realized I had missed an important element over the many years played. I always assumed that only Troops, Planetary Defense Markers, and Outposts participated in Surface Combat. However, ships also participate!]

Paired off Imperium combatants now fight a round of combat by first determining their combat differential and then rolling on the appropriate column of the Surface Combat Results table. Regular troops attacking jump troops are given a round of defensive fire before the jump troops fire back to simulate the lack of heavy firepower jump troops possess (i.e. jump troops are great on offense but poor on defense). Possible combat results are either “No Effect” or “Destroyed/Neutralized.” Surface combat continues in rounds until all committed troops of one side are eliminated.

Surface Combat in Imperium, indeed any combat in Imperium, does not factor in a tech level difference. In the history of the game, the combatants were actually balanced technologically (although they designed ships using different doctrines) until the advent of the Terran battleship which appears in an Optional Rule.

Fifth Frontier War: Battles for the Spinward Marches (1981)

Fifth Frontier War (GDW, 1981) Rule Book

The cover of the rule book for Fifth Frontier War (FFW) carries the tagline “For Use With TRAVELLER” above the title. Here is how the game introduces itself:

Poised just beyond the frontier of the Imperium stand the war fleets of the Zhodani Consulate. Four times in the past five hundred years, they have attacked in campaigns to wrest control of the vital resources and rich worlds of the Spinward Marches from the Third Imperium. Now they strike again, and the Fifth Frontier War begins in earnest.

Fifth Frontier War is a Traveller campaign game portraying the progress of a far-reaching interstellar war and its effects on the many worlds that are its battlefield. The game is playable independently as a tense, fast-moving simulation of interstellar war. Rules cover starship squadrons and space battles, troop units and worlds at war, and the details of long-range interstellar planning. Special rules cover the operation of ship fleets, the use of naval bases, troop carriers, and advanced technological levels. Special charts cover every aspect of combat during the game.

Fifth Frontier War includes a large, four-color map of part of the Spinward Marches, complete with planetary surface boxes detailing the many planets within the area. Three sheets totaling 720 die-cut counters provide starship squadrons, troop units, fleet markers, admirals, and other details essential to the game. The rules booklet details how to play the game, while charts provide reference information. Two dice are included to help generate random numbers for combat.

Fifth Frontier War is playable by itself, but familiarity with the Traveller science-fiction role-playing system will aid in understanding the background history. The game may be played in 4 to 6 hours, and can usually be finished in an evening of play. It is designed for two players, but up to four may be involved if desired.

Fifth Frontier War, Rule Book, p. 2

The line, “…familiarity with the Traveller science-fiction role-playing system will aid in understanding the background history” is very insightful. FFW is set in the Traveller universe, but it is not an essential part of the roleplaying game. Like Imperium before it, FFW is another grand strategic wargame. This time, however, the setting is more closely tied to the Traveller material.

Leveraging the closer ties to Traveller, the scale in FFW uses several for the roleplaying game’s conventions. Each turn in one week, the same as the time spent in jump space, and each hex is one parsec.

FFW, like Imperium before it, uses several different combat subsystems in play. “Surface Combat” comes after “Space Combat” and “Interface Combat” in the Combat Phase of each turn. “Surface Combat” specifically deals with troops present on a world engaging in combat.

Resolution of surface combat in FFW is again very simple. The combat factor of a unit can be split to attack multiple defenders or they may combine with other units. The total of attacking combat factors is compared to defending combat factors to derive attack odds. Using the Troop Combat Results Table both the attacker rolls 2d6 and cross-references the results. Combat results are applied after all battles are complete. The combat result is expressed as the percentage of the force destroyed with the results applied at the end of the phase.

Technology makes a difference in surface combat in FFW. The combat factor of armored units is doubled in surface combat. Elite units also have their combat factor doubled. (Mercenary units have their strength halved if currently at 50% or more casualties; their heart isn’t in it anymore.) Most importantly, after the combat odds are determined, but before any dice are rolled, the relative tech levels of the force are considered. The difference in tech level becomes a column shift on the Troop Combat Results Table. Of note, the atmosphere of the planet is also a consideration, but appears in the form of a die roll modifier, not a column shift like technology. Just as importantly, the tech level of the force is determined by the lowest tech level unit participating in the combat.

Let’s see how surface combat plays out using the example in the rule book from FFW. It’s a bit long and the numbers may look big but in reality it goes quick once you try it. Pay close attention to how dramatic the column shifts can be from different tech levels fighting each other:

The Zhodani player has landed two tech level 14, full strength 20-factor troop units on a tech level 10 Imperial world having a tech level 15, full strength 5-factor troop unit and a 150-factor defense unit at 20% losses (thus having a current strength of 120). The Zhodani player attacks the Imperial troop unit using 15 factors; the combat odds are 3:1 (15:5) and are shifted one column to the left (to 2:1 ) due to tech level difference (14 -15 = -1 ). The dice roll is 5 and is not modified, as the atmosphere of the world is normal. Thus, 40% losses are inflicted on the Imperial troop unit. The Zhodani player attacks the defense unit using his remaining 25 factors. The combat odds are 1:5 (25:120) and are shifted four columns to the right (to 1.5:1) due to tech level difference (14 – 10 = 4). A 6 is rolled, and the unit takes 20% losses, increasing its total losses to 40%. Losses to the Imperial units are not implemented until the end of the combat. The Imperial player attacks one of the Zhodani units with all 5 of his tech level 15 factors. The combat odds are 1:5 (5:20). He could have used some of the factors from the defense unit to raise the odds, but this would have meant an unfavorable tech level difference due to the defense unit’s lower tech level. The tech level difference is (15 -14 =) 1, which means the attack is resolved on the 1:3 column. The dice roll is 9, and thus the attack has no effect. The Imperial player attacks the other Zhodani unit with the 120 factors of the defense unit. The odds are 5:1 (120:20) and are shifted four columns to the left (to 1:1) due to tech level difference (10 -14 = -4). The dice roll is 7, resulting in 10% losses to the Zhodani unit. Surface combat resolution is now finished for this world, and the combat results are implemented: a 10 casualty marker is stacked under one of the Zhodani units, a 40 casualty marker is stacked under the Imperial troop unit, and the 20 casualty marker for the defense battalions is exchanged for a 40 casualty marker.

Fifth Frontier War, Rule Book, p. 15

Near the end of the rules for FFW the designers give some hints for using this wargame in a Traveller RPG campaign:

ROLE-PLAYING

Role-playing appears to Traveller players to be a simple series of adventures in which situations are presented, dealt with by the players, and resolved. The Traveller referee knows that there is a lot more to running a consistent, interesting Traveller campaign; preparation for each situation is required, contingencies must be foreseen, and background laid out. Fifth Frontier War is intended as a partial solution to the problems of presenting situations to Traveller players.

BASIC CONCEPT

Fifth Frontier War is a detailed adventure game of the progress of the current war between the Imperium and the Zhodani in the Spinward Marches. It progresses on weekly turns with forces representing squadrons of military starships and battalions or more of fighting troops. The game is intended to be played for enjoyment of and by itself. Indeed, in situations where no referee is available, or where only two Traveller players can get together, Fifth Frontier War allows them to play a form of Traveller without a referee.

Ultimately, the Traveller referee will have enough experience with the game and its rules to be able to use it in a Traveller campaign. At that point, Fifth Frontier War can be used to indicate the greater conditions that are happening in the Spinward Marches, often just beyond the knowledge of Traveller adventurers. Players can be idly exploring a world in the Spinward Marches and be suddenly confronted with a major space battle in the skies above them, or encounter major friendly or enemy troop units establishing bases. The point is that they cannot know ahead of time exactly what activity is taking place even one system away, and that activity could be deadly to them.

Fifth Frontier War, Rule Book, p. 19

Invasion: Earth – The Final Battle of the Solomani Rim War (1981)

Invasion: Earth (GDW, 1981)

Invasion: Earth (IE) was released in the same year as FFW but does not carry the “For Use With TRAVELLER” tag across the cover. Maybe this is because Invasion: Earth is a historical game in the Traveller setting, taking place some five years before the default start of the Traveller setting from the Little Black Books.

Once again, I’m going to let the introduction of Invasion: Earth explain itself:

INVASION: EARTH

Invasion: Earth is a two-player game of the assault on Terra by the forces of the Imperium; this battle was the last major campaign of the Solomani Rim War. (A section at the end of the rules gives a brief outline of this war.) One player represents the commander of the lmperial invasion force and controls all lmperial regular, colonial, and mercenary units in the game. The other player represents the commander of the Solomani forces assigned to the defense of Terra and controls all Solomani units in the game.

TRAVELLER

Invasion: Earth is a complete game, playable in itself. It may also be used in several ways to supplement or to provide a background for Traveller campaigns and adventures, as indicated in a section following the rules on the play of the game.

Invasion: Earth, Rule Book, p. 3

Invasion: Earth is a game that shows the strategic-level of warfare, but at a much smaller scale than either Imperium or FFW. One game of Invasion: Earth is a single planetary invasion; one complete round of surface combat at one planet in Imperium or Fifth Frontier War. Each turn in Invasion: Earth is two weeks. Here is how the rules describe surface units:

Troop units are the field formations which, through the use of manpower and firepower, are the ultimate defenders or attackers of a piece of terrain. Due to the high technological levels of the opposing forces, the basic transport vehicle is the anti-gravity vehicle; hence troop units are quite mobile. PD [Planetary Defense] units are collections of energy weapons and missiles capable of engaging naval units bombarding the surface of a world. Each has an intrinsic garrison assigned to it; hence, a PD unit is rated and treated similarly as a troop unit. Most PD units are large, static installations and are immobile, while a few small PD units are mounted on grav vehicles.

Invasion: Earth, Rule Book, p. 3

The combat system used in Invasion: Earth is near-identical to FFW. Adjustments for Armor, Elite, and Mercenary units are still here. Tech level differences shift columns on the Troop Combat Table. The major difference between Invasion: Earth and FFW is the introduction of movement rules.

Like FFW before, the rule book for Invasion: Earth includes extensive ideas for integrating the game with a Traveller RPG campaign. Additionally, though Invasion: Earth focuses on one (“historical”) planetary invasion, the end of the rule book also includes a section for taking the rules and using them for other campaigns, including troops not equipped with grav vehicles (the default in IE).

JTAS Articles

JTAS #9 Cover

A review of the first 24 issues of the Journal of the Traveller’s Aid Society reveals only a small handful of articles related to rules for these strategic wargames. Not surprising, in a way, given JTAS was intended to support the Traveller RPG game and not the wargame line of GDW.

JTAS 1 (1979)

This issue contained the article “Diplomacy in Imperium” which introduced a variant using Emissaries into the campaign. Meh.

JTAS 5 (1980)

This cover article in this issue is “Imperium: Ground Combat Module” by the same Roberto Camino that did the “Diplomacy” variant in Issue 1. The ground system he introduces is something between Imperium and Invasion: Earth with planets depicted on two hemispherical maps. This module is intended to replace the Surface Combat phase of Imperium.

JTAS 9 (1981)

This was a “special” Fifth Frontier War edition with lots of background material for the game (some of which was duplicative of the rule book).

What’s the Best Strategy?

As similar as two of these game are, all three of these strategic Traveller wargames offer very different approaches to the Traveller RPG universe. That said, all three of these games are clearly wargames-first and the integration with the Traveller RPG is difficult at best. This is very much unlike almost every Personal/Tactical combat game that is tightly tied to (even forming) the roleplaying game rules.

Imperium is by far the most abstract of the strategic models and unsurprisingly the easiest to learn and play. It also has no expressed technological aspect. Coming before the publication of Traveller, it is also probably the most difficult to “fit” into a Traveller RPG campaign setting as it uses many elements of the setting but in ways that are not directly relatable to the RPG.

Fifth Frontier War, regardless of the “For Use With TRAVELLER” tagline, is a separate wargame set in the Traveller RPG universe. FFW probably does the second-best job of capturing the technological difference of any Traveller wargame, either Personal/Tactical or Strategic. Although there are extensive notes describing how to use FFW in a Traveller RPG campaign, the truth to the matter is the two systems, though set in the same universe and sharing common foundations, are too different in scale to be combined.

Invasion: Earth is the best wargame/RPG system, either Personal/Tactical or Strategic, to capture the impact of technology on ground warfare in the Traveller universe. Like FFW, however, integrating Invasion: Earth into a Traveller RPG campaign is very challenging due once again to the differences in scale. Invasion: Earth is closer to an RPG than FFW, but fighting two weeks of battles between Regiments or Armies is far above the “personal view” that the Traveller RPG is built on.

Interestingly, even though there are more than few articles that discuss integrating the tactical-scale Striker (GDW, 1981) into Traveller campaign, I find no articles or rules about integrating Striker into Imperium, FFW, or Invasion: Earth. I realize Striker was published near-simultaneous to FFW and Invasion: Earth, but you would think even after the fact somebody might had made an attempt in JTAS. Guess not. Once again, the difference in scale is probably just too much to overcome.


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

#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