Saturday, April 21, 2018

Converting Pocket Empires

I grabbed this from the "Noble" article at
Wookieepedia. They don't credit the artist, but
it seems to be Gonzalo Flores, according to the
signature. If he wants me to take it down, I will.
Speaking of converting Pocket Empires to MegaTraveller, I have done a bit of work toward that which I think could be shared here. I've been working out the probabilities from one set of difficulty numbers to another. For your entertainment and possible value, here are the equivalent target numbers for a roll of 2, 2.5, 3, 4, and 5 dice (as used in Marc Miller's Traveller, aka T4, and also, except for the 2.5D roll, in Traveller5) vs. an average stat of 7:

2D = 7+
2.5D = 9+
3D = 10+
4D = 12+
5D = 15+ (figured as stat of 7 with a DM+3, or a target of 10, to get to about the same odds as 12+)

Note that these don't convert very perfectly to the difficulty levels of other Traveller editions, but then they don't really need to. The point is to get in the same ballpark, not necessarily to hit the exact same odds.

My current thinking is that T4 "Difficult" should be MT "Difficult" with an automatic DM+2, T4 "Formidable" and "Staggering" should both convert to MT "Difficult" (I could give them DMs of +1 or -1 to match the odds exactly, but that gets a bit fiddly), and T4 "Impossible" should be MT "Formidable". As an aside, that should also make T5 difficulties of 6D or higher equivalent to MT "Impossible".

I am assuming the use of the MgT stat modifiers. I haven't decided whether to use those, the original MT ones, or the ones in a set of house rules for MT I found online, where the modifier = (stat/3)-2 rounded up. I'm kinda leaning toward that last one.

One of the issues involved with conversion is that I can't just take the given difficulty and port it over directly. Some of the T4 tasks rely on two attributes, which distort the probabilities since attributes are around three to five times more potent in T4 (and also TNE and T5, though that's not really relevant here) than they are in most other editions. So, a T4 task which relies on two attributes would have a target of around 14 or less on average (since the average attribute is a 7), while in MT by the book it would be an average of DM+2. A Routine task would have a 100% chance of succeeding in T4 (2D vs. a target of 14 or less), while it would have an 83% chance in MT (base target 7+, DM+2 = final target 5+ = 83%). So, instead what I need to do is check each task, figure its base odds with average stats and skill-0 if necessary, and convert it from there.

Edit to add: I want to include a link to this article, which is kept at the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Alternate Traveller Campaign Frames: Noble House

I've been putting this one off mostly because I really wanted to do the subject justice. (Edit to add: Not that I think that I have, but I have been letting the perfect be the enemy of the good enough for too long now.) This is the campaign frame for Traveller that I myself most want to play in, or run if I must. It has been generally unsupported in official Traveller products, with the closest being Adventure 5 Trillion Credit Squadron and the colonial economic model in World Tamer's Handbook (and don't get me wrong, those were good and potentially useful for the subject), but in the fourth edition, Marc Miller's Traveller (also called T4 for short), the supplement Pocket Empires came out.

Oh, this was a joy for me to see. Finally, the game would support campaigns inspired by Dune and other sources involving high-level politics and intrigue. There were rules covering everything from the economic development of worlds to incorporating new worlds into your pocket empire to setting up and finalizing a marriage between members of your noble family and another one. Assassination attempts, espionage, politics on the floor of the Senate, all of these things were covered in the high-level game here.

There were some weaknesses, of course. The basic game had a development turn a full year in length, which could lead to pretty severe discontinuities between the Pocket Empires layer and the roleplaying layer. The rules for voting factions in politics were a little rudimentary, but still serviceable. The military forces abstractions were perhaps a bit too abstract (although this was at least partly remedied with the addition of Imperial Squadrons, which was a major revision and update to T4 standards of Trillion Credit Squadron). The handling of corporations avoided many of the things that give that aspect of play its distinct flavor, with no insider trading, no boardroom politics, no shares changing hands, only what amounts to an abstracted hostile takeover and a few other simple tactics.

Some of the elements of the noble life have been handled over the years. I mentioned a number of resources in the last installment of "Alternate Traveller Campaign Frames", and at least one more has appeared since then in the form of an article titled "The Influence Game", posted over at Wayhaven Traveller, which could be used to fix the lackluster politics rules in Pocket Empires.

That really just leaves the problems of the speed of play and the generic, unfulfilling corporation rules. The corporations could be handled by looking at the rules on high finance and setting up and running corporations, getting them onto publicly traded markets, and so on that are found in GURPS Traveller: Far Trader, but it still misses the whole corporate struggle aspect as the authors left out the dirty tricks from the Stock Exchange floor. For that, we have to look further afield, to a supplement for the game TORG called Nippon Tech. That included a whole sequence of corporate warfare and a character type, the "Mega-corporation CEO", that could use it. Issuing junk bonds, taking advantage of insider trading, and most importantly the results of adventuring such as sabotage or stolen information are all embedded into the game as warfare against the opponents happens on the trading floor as much as in a firefight.

A lot of these different layers include the idea of a turn length of a week to a month. It shouldn't be hard to incorporate that into the main Pocket Empires sequence. That would fit everything more tightly to the roleplaying layer of the campaign, which effectively has a "turn length" of one week, since that's how often Patron and Rumor checks are made, how long a Jump takes, and so on.

All of this is important to me, as I am (slowly) working to convert Pocket Empires to MegaTraveller standards. I think that edition is the easiest to convert to any of the various other editions out there, so that it could be easily used with CT, CE, MgT, T5, or whatever. I intend to flesh out the corporate section and the politics especially, but also spend some more time on the military elements. Integrating it more completely with the roleplaying is my priority, of course. Setting out a specific method of generating the Noble House and its starting assets will be important too, as will working out ways to incorporate the players into the House.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Gaming Settings

CC by-nc-sa Lonnie Dunn, found here:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/archaicwarrior/5969822137
As I've been working on a fantasy RPG that works from different assumptions than the D&D stream (while still being "old school", since it draws heavily on Traveller for its mechanics), I've been thinking about what makes a setting good for gaming. Here are some of those thoughts, taken as a quick tour through some gaming and fiction worlds.

Middle-Earth: Tolkien's world is great for his stories, but terrible for gaming. Everything in it is already pretty well set and with little wiggle room. Plus, it is the prototype of what we might call "generic gaming fantasy", with its elves, dwarves, humans, and halflings. While I love it for Tolkien's stories, for gaming it is dreary and dull. A couple of games manage to work some usable gaming material out of it, but in each case it is either by leaving Tolkien's setting behind to some degree or by so limiting the area and scope that the players can't get their characters tied up in Tolkien's plots. One thing that I do love about Middle-Earth is Tolkien's proclivity toward nature writing. A lot of people count that as a flaw in his works, but I love it. And the singing too.

Glorantha: While it has elves and dwarves, Glorantha does everything so differently that it is just bonkers. Anyway, elves (aldrayami) and dwarves (mostali) are the merest sideshows in the craziness of Gloranthan societies. With ducks, trolls, and even wilder thinking species, Glorantha is a place people will either love or hate. The bronze age aesthetic appeals to me, though I sometimes get lost in Stafford's wildness. The way that spirits and magic are handled in the setting is well worth anyone examining, and one can examine it from the perspective of simulation (RuneQuest) or narrative (HeroQuest), depending on your predilection. It might be best to look at how both games approach the setting.

Oerth (aka The World of Greyhawk): While this is technically generic gaming fantasy of the type noted above, the treatment of the setting as a real place, where population numbers and numbers of troops are recorded, where trade goods are placed by region of origin, and where gaming necessities like examining what the players are doing as a profession are incorporated as institutions in the setting make this one of the most vital and essential gaming settings to look at. It doesn't hurt that it's also one of the most diverse settings, with the populations of the centerpiece continent, the Flanaess, being largely people of color (and this has been true for longer than that was something that audiences demanded).

Tékumel: Probably the first setting specifically for gaming to be published - though it originated long before gaming, Professor Barker developed it in a role-playing campaign. As a result, it has some elements that are specifically directed toward the needs of player-characters in the setting, such as the underworld of every major city. Being the first, it was also not tied to the assumptions of previous efforts and so is a gloriously insane look at some of the potentials of worldbuilding. Like the earliest D&D games seem to have been, it is a "science-fantasy" setting, with advanced technology sitting next to marvelous magic. If you're a worldbuilder and haven't looked at Tékumel yet, you're missing out.

Dark Sun: This was the first published setting I saw where the potentials of worldbuilding came clear to me. It happened as I was sitting in on a game session, waiting for one of the players, and I listened as the party leader chose to set aside some gold in favor of carrying more water. That was stunning to me at the time, since I had gotten used to players taking as much gold as possible to maximize their experience points. Just crazy! I looked further into it, and was unimpressed by some of the decisions, but the way that the desert environment was baked into the setting still leaves me in awe. The ways that the generic gaming fantasy thinking species were re-imagined is worth examining. I also learned how important a seemingly little thing like logistics can be to creating flavor.

Hârn: Yes, humans, dwarves, and elves. There are some weaknesses of this setting, but the lovingly crafted detail is inspiring. Treating characters as if they were more than just a collection of statistics (though there are a lot of statistics in the game that goes along with the setting, it is also suitable for a number of different rules sets), and the setting as if it were more than merely a backdrop in front of which characters kill things, helps to set a tone that I appreciate deeply.

Spelljammer: A look at what can be done with generic gaming fantasy if cut loose from some of its assumptions. I love it, but it seems to have been eclipsed by Planescape, perhaps because the existence of Spelljamming ships deforms other settings that include them, so that Oerth, the Forgotten Realms, and Krynn sat uneasily among the assumed worlds of the setting and should never have been included there in the first place.

The Young Kingdoms: Worth examining to see how a fiction setting (in this case, the Elric of Melniboné stories) can be fitted to the needs of a gaming campaign. By focusing on areas that are mentioned but only incompletely explored in the fiction sources, while carefully avoiding breaking canon, the setting details in the Stormbringer RPG (and its other - in my opinion inferior - incarnation, Elric) provide an interesting and alternative take on some concepts that have become over-familiar. The Melnibonéans sit as a sort of decadent elvish society that provides a useful contrast to the sorrowful or joyful ones that one can get from emphasizing different aspects of Tolkien's elves.

Hyboria: Speaking of Elric (who was explicitly created to be the antithesis of Conan), Howard's setting happens to be useful in gaming terms, with plenty of different directions to choose to travel as characters. It's also very helpful in providing a world in which all, well most, of the thinking species are just humans. Unfortunately, in part it does this by making all sorts of assumptions about "race" and whatnot, so it should be examined carefully and sifted finely to extract the useful parts.

Which reminds me to add that I am not very fond of settings that try to "reimagine orcs" as noble whatevers. As I have often said, if you're doing that, why do you have orcs at all? What is it about orcs that you need in that setting and cannot get from just making the adversaries human? The whole point of orcs is to give players a foe they can slaughter with a minimum of moral quandary. "Subverting" that simply removes the only reason for orcs to exist. It's one thing to examine orc society in detail, as is done in Hârn for example, but pointless to make them out to be some sort of noble savage, unjustly misunderstood by humanity. That role is equally suitable for humans, whether of a different skin color than the players' characters or perhaps just with differing sartorial assumptions, and more pertinent for that theme as well. The subverted orc is just a trap for the players that they can't rightly get out of: "Here are some orcs, go ahead and kill them!" "OK, now that you've killed a bunch of them, here's why you're awful people for doing that." It's not a moral test, it's just being a shitty Referee.

Anyway, the point here is that a gaming setting should pay attention to what the players will be doing with their characters in the setting. You can't just plop them down and assume that they will do things. You have to give them things to do, and you have to arrange the setting so that they will be able to do those things. For instance, Oerth has the institution of the "adventurer", who is someone who does a certain type of thing and is given privileges to pursue that occupation in the assumed laws of the land. In Tékumel, there are networks of tunnels underneath the cities that interested parties can explore in a search for lost technology and such. And so on. Put those things in your world setting.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Lord of the Rings, Power Creep, and Notes Toward a Manifesto

There's been a minor surfeit of blog posts about Middle-Earth lately (a couple of days ago, something like four different posts happened within a few hours, and it seems that none of the bloggers had been communicating with each other over it). It's interesting to me because I've been re-reading the Tolkien books since the beginning of the year, and re-watching the extended Lord of the Rings films (Jackson really should have stopped there). I continued on that cinematic retrospective by re-watching a bunch of '80s-era "barbarian fantasy" films, but that's another story. In any case, I am not sure why there's been such a surge of Tolkien in the gaming blog community lately, but I have to say that I'm happy to see it.

It's interesting to me that Tolkien expresses one of the themes that I've been pursuing in gaming (a theme, sadly, which the industry as a whole has apparently not only abandoned but seemingly repudiated): the theme of the heroism of the small. By that, I don't necessarily mean small in size, though that is how it sometimes manifests in the literature, but the heroism of those who are not granted extraordinary powers (or those whose supposedly extraordinary powers are of such a nature that keeps them still within the realms of ordinary people).

I want to remember that a mere 4th level Fighting Man was given the title of "Hero", and that it only takes 8th level to be a "Superhero". These crazy ideas of 15th or 20th level (or more!) should be limited to actual gods, or at least demigods. The antics of the characters in The Order of the Stick should be remembered as those of outlandishly powerful ones, not assumed as the baseline for what player-characters are able to do.

I think that I first noticed this was happening when GURPS 4th edition increased the recommended baseline of character power (starting points value) by 50% over the previous edition, from 100 points to 150 points. Later, they decided that their attempt to return to the traditional "dungeon crawl" style of play, which was therefore based in large part on D&D and similar games, would recommend that characters start at the amazing level of 250 points, 2 and a half times that of "heroic" characters from the previous edition. When I would express disapproval of this in the forums or to GURPS bloggers, I would be dismissed lightly with variations of "it's fun!", and nevermind that I was sitting there telling them that it wasn't fun for me.

Of course, we're all quite aware that the 5th edition of D&D has steeply deprecated the low levels, getting characters to 4th level in about the same number of experience points that used to bring them their first level increase in pre-WotC editions. Previously, those first three levels were considered important, being, as the apparently apocryphal quote attributed to Gary Gygax has it, the characters' backstory (the earliest version of the quote found on the internet by people attempting to source it actually specifies the first six levels). Even if apocryphal, however, it remains true that it was at 4th level that the Fighting Man was first called a Hero. Now, though, those first three levels are just something to race through to get to "the good stuff".

As a brief aside, this is all related to one of the most obnoxious types of gaming story that can be inflicted on others: the "Natural 20". Somehow, the 5% chance has risen to some sort of magical power in gaming, probably due to critical hit rules being blown out of proportion. Clueless gamers have perpetrated countless boring stories about how this or that improbable thing happened in their game because they rolled a "natural 20", or sometimes a 1, and the Referee ruled that meant that something otherwise impossible occurred. The fact that one or two of these stories are actually funny only makes the rest of them that much worse, as the aforementioned clueless gamers are unable to discriminate between the good and the bad, which may be the very reason that they are clueless in the first place.

Anyway, this tendency in published gaming to move toward higher starting power levels, or quickly getting to them, has caused me to move back toward games that don't make those high-powered assumptions. Traveller, in its various incarnations, tends in that direction, so it's been very attractive to me. Well, in the original and MegaTraveller versions, at least. Marc Miller's Traveller (T4), too, and maybe T5. And GURPS Traveller was written before the game that powers it started to creep toward greater baseline assumed power levels. There are other games I've been moving back toward, too: Flashing Blades, Lace & Steel, CORPS, various D&D retroclones like Stars Without Number, ACKS, and Swords & Wizardry: White Box, or more variant versions like Dungeon Crawl Classics (which ranges widely in power across its 11 levels, but definitely hits the right notes for me before 5th level or so), not to mention actual pre-WotC editions of (A)D&D and its variants like The Arcanum. It doesn't mean simpler rules, either, since games like Hârnmaster are definitely in the low-power category.

Over on social media, I wrote, "I'm more interested in the sort of heroics that are performed by kids with six months of training in what end of the rifle a bullet comes out and then are thrown into the fray than in specialists who have constant elite training for years and then go on a tightly scheduled and planned mission once every couple of years. As it were." I think that sort of summarizes the issue. Special forces are interesting because their circumstances are extraordinary by design, but it's the common soldier in extraordinary circumstances who is more interesting than the circumstances. Frodo and Sam's, Merry's, or Pippin's stories were more interesting to me than Gandalf's or even Aragorn's. It was more remarkable for Eowyn to kill the Witch-King than it would have been if Galadriel had.

Now, sure, it won't be every low-powered game that has some kind of amazing result, but that's sort of the point. If every game is "remarkable", then they start to get lost in the forest of remark. See above about the "Natural 20" type of story, where any 5% chance becomes the one in a million longshot. That doesn't elevate the once-in-twenty, it devalues the one-in-a-million.

I don't expect that this will get rid of the high-power style of gaming, and I don't think that it should. I just want there to be a place for more human scales of game.

Monday, January 22, 2018

A Kickstarter To Check Out

It's not a RPG, but wargames are also pretty awesome in my opinion. Anyway, this one has crossed its funding threshold, so it's going to happen. Take a look at America Falling, a wargame about near future conflict in the Lower 48, as the political fault lines in the US break apart and the nation is thrown into a second Civil War. There are rules for cyberwarfare, turning units to your side, and so on. I'm a little bit sad that Cascadia* didn't make the list of insurgent factions, but Ecotopia will do, and you can probably work up a rules variant that includes other insurgents. Speaking of rules, the rules PDF can be downloaded (pdf link) for free to preview it.

The stretch goals include making versions of the game for Europe and Asia, so that looks pretty fun.

Anyway, looks like it could be a pretty good game. At $63 for the game and shipping, it's not too bad price-wise either. Since the MSRP will be $80, it's a very good deal.

*I am aware of at least two different Cascadias, actually. The first and largest is a loose coalition of people who think that the Pacific Northwest can go it alone and probably should, especially if the rest of the country breaks apart. They're pretty interested in becoming a Canadian province in that event and have developed optimistic, if unlikely, processes for doing so. The second is identitarian and believes that the PNW should be a "white" homeland. From what I've seen, their plan for this, if you can call it a "plan", is stockpiling guns.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

I Really Need To Be In The Habit Of Writing

Well, as has been the case for a couple of years, I didn't really post a lot last year. I'm hoping to change that - which I've said before, so who knows how it'll turn out this time.

One good thing in my gaming life lately is that I've finally figured out some of the details of the sort-of retroclone of MegaTraveller I want to do. Cepheus Engine seems like the perfect place to start, since it doesn't have any of the weird and confusing restrictions that are in the MgT SRD. It should be easy enough to redefine difficulties to fit the MT ones (separated by 4 points instead of 2 as in the CE version), and then going back to the original version for things like aging, encounters, and so on. A major change to the task system I want to make is to drop tasks one category. That is, instead of a Routine task succeeding on a 7+ and a Difficult one on 11+, the Routine task will succeed on 3+ and the Difficult one on 7+. This is to compensate for the assumption that the Digest Group people had that a character would typically have a DM of +4. It allows me to get back to Traveller-style assumptions about skill levels. With the added emphasis on level-0 skills in MT, that makes the increase of difficulty by one category for lacking the skill back into a meaningful thing. Another change will be to make exceptional results happen at a margin of 4 points instead of 2, but that's probably not meaningful to the casual reader. Damage results in combat will remain the same, though.

Notice how I called it a "sort-of" retroclone. That's because I've decided that I want to make some more radical changes too. For one, I'll be getting rid of the "hit points" system that is common to Traveller, and replacing it with an "injury" model of wounds. That is, when you get hit, there will be a mostly descriptive result that applies to your character until it heals. For example, "moderate bleeding slash to right arm", which consists of the following elements: moderate, bleeding, slash, and right arm. "Moderate" indicates the severity, which influences how long it takes to heal, the kind of treatment required, and also determines how much that wound affects attempts to perform other actions. "Bleeding" means that the wound is causing blood loss (which is the one place where there will be a sort of hit points). "Slash" is mainly important for determining what sort of treatment would be required to help the healing process. "Right Arm", obviously, indicates which tasks are affected by the wound. There are a number of other elements that could end up in a wound description, too, and during healing it could become infected.

Another thing I want to do is write it as a fantasy game instead of an SF one. I've been intrigued by the idea ever since the Thieves' World boxed set included Traveller statistics for the characters of that setting.

A big change (some will think) that I want to make is to revise character creation. Characters will start at a young age and not go through a career lifepath. Instead, there will be a number of skill points that the player can spend to give starting skills. After that, the MT methods of improving skills will come into play during the game. I want to model a lot of that on Flashing Blades, actually.

Another change I want to include is a personality system derived from the ones in Pendragon, Fantasy Wargaming, and Lace & Steel. I feel like that is something that can improve the game experience in a fantasy setting, which is usually more intimately connected to character motivations than an SF one generally tends toward. Yes, that is an over-broad statement. I hope that people will find the personality system I write to be useful in their SF games too. Heck, I might end up writing a new version of this game that goes back to the SF setting.

Anyway, I've been working on that. This is my first post since July. Here's hoping that I can post some more.