Sunday, July 8, 2012

Not-So-Obscure Games: Traveller: The New Era

What is going on here?
I pretty much skimmed over this game in my discussion of Traveller earlier. That was because it is a significantly different game than the others of the Traveller series of games. It develops from the GDW "House System", which was an adaptation of the second edition of Twilight 2000, modified for use with a D20 instead of D10 (and the rest of the House System games, including Twilight 2000 would follow suit). Closely related was Space 1889, which used a D6 instead. There are similarities with 2300AD (formerly Traveller 2300), but that was a direction of development that GDW abandoned.

Traveller: The New Era (or "TNE" for short) was a melding of concepts from the previous Traveller games with the House System. Characteristics were similar to Traveller, but not quite the same. Instead of Strength, Dexterity, Endurance, Intelligence, Education, and Social Standing (and Psionic Strength), a TNE character was rated in Strength, Agility, Constitution, Intelligence, Education, and Charisma (plus Psionics and Social Standing). Unlike Traveller, which rated initial characteristics on 2D6, TNE rated characteristics on 2D6-1. This is an easy conversion, of course, but it does require conversion. Other editions of Traveller can be used directly with each other, no conversion required.

In other editions of Traveller, character skills are rated in small numbers. A skill rating of 1 is acceptable, 3 is significant, and 5 is amazing, with different editions implementing those numbers in different ways. TNE, on the other hand, uses "asset" ratings, which are the sum of an ability and some skill points. These are around 10 for an average professional skill (roughly equivalent to about 3 in other Traveller games). The asset is multiplied by the difficulty modifier (1 for "Difficult" tasks, 2 for "Average" ones, ½ for "Formidable" difficulty, 4 for "Easy" tasks, and ¼ for "Impossible" tasks) to find the roll needed on a D20 for success. There are some finer points, like degree of success based on the difference between the target number and the actual roll, but that's basically how action resolution works. There are occasional instances where the skill points matter, so they are also tracked.

Characters gain starting skills by engaging in "careers". This is also like other Traveller editions, though there are many differences in the actual implementation of that basic idea. In other Traveller editions, most of the previous experience in careers is adjudicated by random dice rolls, but most of the previous experience in TNE is by player choice (though there are some random dice rolls, too). Each period of four years in a career gives a number of skill points to divide between the skills available in that career. Those skill points, when totaled at the end of generation, are added to the appropriate characteristic to determine the character's asset in that skill. In addition, careers that involved combat would give a bonus to a character's "Coolness" rating, used in combat.

In most of the other editions, combat is based around abstract "range bands" and 1.5m squares, depending on the exact situation (the squares are usually used for interior and starship combat, the range bands for outdoors combat), with 15m squares replacing the range bands in MegaTraveller. In TNE, the ground scale is based on 2m squares. It's a small change, but it makes previous materials (such as starship deck plans) useless, and so was annoying. It was also annoying for those of us who tried to use the material to make our own starship deck plans, as the 1.5m squares were perfect for that (2 of those squares, assuming 3m per deck, were 13.5 m3, which was the approximate value of one "displacement ton"), while the 2m squares did not break down into those traditional Traveller measurements so easily. In fact, I don't think that any deck plans were ever released for TNE (or, if there were, they were from secondary publishers, not GDW).

A turn in TNE was 5 seconds, which is comparable to most of the others (usually 6 seconds, though Classic Traveller had a combat turn of 15 seconds). Coolness rating was important, as it was a character's initiative rating, with higher Coolness taking actions first. Very high initiative characters (over 5) would also get an extra action in the round.

TNE had hit locations, which was available as an optional rule in MegaTraveller, but which has never had much importance in the game other than in this edition. A character would take damage in each location separately, with the amount of damage to a location determining the effect. Unfortunately, the "hit capacity" of each location was very high (the chest alone had triple STR+CON points, or an average of 36, the head twice CON, and the other body parts twice STR+CON - compare to an overall total of about 21 for damage dice that were about the same in the other Traveller editions, with about 14 points of damage to render a character out of commission, at least on the first hit). There was a special rule in TNE for auto-kill results to close the lethality gap.

Where TNE shined was in Fire, Fusion, and Steel, the "technical architecture" book. That was a set of systems for designing everything from starships to ground cars, from meson accelerator spinal mounts to body pistols. It was the first major release that included all of those in one place, deriving ideas from both the Striker and MegaTraveller vehicle design systems and from BTRC's Guns, Guns, Guns (aka 3G) weapon design system. This would kick off the fashion for extensive design systems that would culminate with GURPS Vehicles and the CORPS VDS ("Vehicle Design System"). Some people found these design tools intrusive on their experience (even if they didn't actually use them), and these sorts of systems have been falling out of fashion, sadly.

Quick digression about gaming philosophy: Some people have been complaining about detailed gaming systems. The usual argument is that they are too much work for games, since it is just as easy to simply eyeball some numbers, and the effect on the game is the same either way. Most of the information that shows up in those design sequences has no impact on games, they argue. There is much to be said for that latter approach. It was, for instance, the approach used in the original Traveller rules (excepting starships, of course). However, not everyone wants to approach a game in that way. Let me draw a comparison to Poul Anderson. Back in the '60s and '70s, most SF authors would eyeball their fictional worlds. Poul Anderson, though, would work out all of the details of his worlds: their orbital periods, surface albedo, axial tilt, primary's luminosity, and so on. Most of that information had no effect on his stories. However, that deep background informed his authorial choices. In the same way, a lot of these design choices in games don't have any direct effect, but they give deeper background information. Plus, in an open sandbox style, you never know what will be important. It's not to say that detailed design is the best way to do things, but it is one way to approach a game, and "good enough" estimation is not necessarily the best way to go either.

The starship combat system of TNE was excellent, as well. The designers learned what they could from people who had worked on the SDI project of the 1980s, among others, and presented a fairly realistic system. The first release of it was in the board game Brilliant Lances. Starship hit locations were filled with the systems from the design sequences and selected by die roll from among a subset that depended on the facing of the target in comparison to the firing ship. The boardgame used hexes (of 30,000km each) and vector movement, while TNE abstracted this to range bands and other abstractions.

Anyway, it was a solid game, it's just that I prefer Traveller to Twilight 2000. I'm also very much, as I mentioned in the previous discussion, not fond of the background changes made. One of these days, I'll talk about how a Traveller game works. That is, the general outline of play.


  1. Since you bring up Traveller --

    A friend of mine is starting up a game of Mongoose Traveller set along the Solomani Rim during the Hard Times era. The day and time are still to be determined, but we will be playing on Google+ using the Roll20 gaming app.

    If you're interested (and I hope you are, we only have 2 players so far) I encourage you to go to Hard Times on the Solomani Rim for more information.

    1. I am interested! The time isn't ideal for me (I'm on the West Coast, but I am up nights, so that time is like gaming early in the morning), but not impossible. I will send an inquiry to the Referee in the next couple of days.

      What do I need to know about the Roll20 app, given that I don't know anything about it at all currently?

    2. Um, I think (not sure) that all you need do is be invited to a hangout (where the GM is running the app) and install it through Google+. That's what I did.

      We really need a third player so I encourage you to sign up!