Saturday, September 14, 2013

Not-So-Obscure Games: Traveller5

There are now 7 official editions of Traveller, plus at least one apparently unofficial published version (and a wide variety of unpublished or electronic-only versions). They are, in order, Classic Traveller (CT), MegaTraveller (MT), Traveller: The New Era (TNE), Marc Miller's Traveller (T4), GURPS Traveller (GT), Mongoose Traveller (MgT), and the latest entry, Traveller5 (T5), plus the apparently unofficial D20 version of Traveller (T20). All of these except for T20 are listed at the beginning of T5.

T5 was funded by a Kickstarter campaign last year. It succeeded wildly, generating nearly 300 thousand dollars (at the time, the record for tabletop roleplaying games), and, like many such oversuccessful campaigns it delivered the rewards much later than the initial estimate (in fact, there are still a few parts of the rewards that have not yet been delivered, but communication by Mr. Miller keeps confidence high that they will be delivered soon).

It is a huge, hardcover book, weighing in at nearly five pounds, and consisting of 656 pages, the last 16 of which are color plates, mostly showing rendered computer-graphic depictions of starships from the Imperial setting that is so closely tied to Traveller historically. The inside covers have useful information, too, the front inside having a photocopiable character card, the back with a simple map of the whole of known space in the Imperial setting. The interior of the book is high-quality, with a heavy-bond paper in actual stitched signatures.

The type is of a reasonable size, and the pictures are functional more than decorative. In many ways it is reminiscent of The Traveller Book, which is from me high praise. The cover design is the classic, and in my opinion perfect, design made famous with the original boxed sets of CT (and used also for GT and MgT): a black background with the name of the game in red with a red line coming from the left side over to the last character of the name, and some descriptive words in white (in this case, "Core Rules" above the red line and "Science-Fiction Adventures in the Far Future" below the name). So, it is a wonderful artifact from the perspective of appearance. The appearance is only marred by the unfortunately frequent occurrence of typographical and layout errors. These errors are not as frequent as in some previous editions (T4 being notable, though MT had its share). But no one is going to buy the game on its appearance alone. What matters is the content.

T5 continues the design that was present in T4. The basic system is one which generates a target number by adding an attribute and a skill level. Once this is done, and modified for circumstances, a number of dice based on the difficulty are rolled, with a roll of equal to or less than the target number indicating success. Most rolls are on 2 or 3 dice (average or difficult), but can range from 1 to 8 (or even 10 on very hasty attempts). All dice in Traveller are six-sided. There is an interesting rule that makes skill important, rather than relying entirely on native talent, which says that if the difficulty is greater than the skill, then an extra die of difficulty is added. This is basically the same system as in T4, except that T5 removes the clumsy half-dice of the earlier edition.

The rest of the book includes everything from character creation (there are now 13 possible professions to choose from, ranging from civilian ones to military and criminal professions) to starship design, psionics and merchant activities to wilderness and alien animals, just as in every other version. Added are sections on clones, robots, biological androids and synthetics, genetically engineered creatures, sections on vehicle, weapon, and armor design (which should make the people who hate vehicle design systems pretty happy, actually, being much simplified from the old Striker, MT, TNE, and T4 methods). Weapons and Armor are made by picking a basic type and adding adjectives describing its specific configuration. Anime fans will be happy to see the Oversized and Titan adjectives, which can, among other things, result in 4- or 6-meter tall battlesuits (mecha!) Vehicles are a little more complex, but much simplified from those older methods of laying out every element of the vehicle. In addition to all of that, there is the ThingMaker system, which allows a Referee to estimate the physical characteristics of any science-fictional gadget she can imagine, based on a system of organizing common sense, basically.

Probably the niftiest thing added is the QREBS system, which is a rating for an item's Quality, Reliability, Ease-of-use, Burden, and Safety. This allows specific items that are variations of a basic item.

Technology is now described from Tech Level 0 (stone age and such) on up through 15 (the Imperial TL in the default background) all the way up to 33, which is now treated as the technological limit of species that have not transcended existence. There is a method of figuring out the technological path of an alien species, including its path toward the Singularity above TL21, which is unstable and will quickly, within just a fairly short time (though still on the scale of generations) result in extinction, transcendence, or a voluntary or involuntary reduction to a sustainable level of technology (back down to TL21 or less).

There is a system for designing alien species. This is really quite good, but it does result in the annoying section of the book dedicated to senses. This is a full 13 pages, and is very technical. Worse, it is rarely used - in fact, there is an admonition to use it "only as really necessary" (an admonition that is fairly frequent in the book, actually, forming the basis of the MOARN "Map Only As Really Necessary" acronym, for example).

The single most annoying change, though, is the change of characteristics. Before, they were referred to by their name or an abbreviation. So, there was Strength, which could be Str or S, Dexterity (Dex or D), and so on. Now characteristics are called C1 through C6. Aliens may have slightly varying characteristics (Agility instead of Dexterity and such), which retain the characteristic number, but have slightly different effects in the game. Instead of rolling Dex, you would roll C2, which could be Dexterity, Agility, or Grace, depending on the alien species. Blah.

So, here's the thing. There is a lot, a lot, of useful stuff in there. Every Traveller Referee should probably have a copy for inspiration at least. I am especially happy with the new systems designed to help a Referee develop a setting (so that the game continues to be useful for more than just the Imperium setting). However, I am not very happy with the post-TNE system of rolling under a target, and even less with the many-dice system of T4 and T5. As I have said many times, to me MT is the ideal edition to date, and MgT approaches that one in quality (though GT includes some really useful subsystems for background design, such as the trade routes system in GT:Far Trader or the expanded world design in GT:First In). T5 just doesn't match that one, continuing down a path forged by T4 (and ignited by TNE). There is just so much in T5, though, that is worth adapting to other editions. I don't know if it's worth $75 to any but the most ardent Traveller fan, but at least it is available for considerably less on CD-ROM (at $35 it should be a good value to any Traveller Referee). I don't see the Jump Drive flash drives on the Far Futures website, unfortunately, but those are pretty neat.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Post-Apocalypse Gaming

This is your new tabletop.
Not what you're thinking.

Sometimes, I speculate about counterfactual things. For instance, on occasion I think about what I would do for gaming if there were a societal collapse scenario. If, say, there were a massive plague that resulted in 90% of the population dying off and I happened to survive (though that isn't essential, this is speculating about what a random gamer who survived such an event might do, really), or a zombie apocalypse, or whatever. What would I do for gaming, supposing that I found a group to play games with afterward.

These super-complicated games that are being sold these days don't seem like they'd be really useful in such a situation. If I need a thick hardcover book full of charts and lists of feats and whatnot, that's something I have to lug around that weighs a lot and doesn't contribute much to my survival (though it would contribute to my life). What happens if I lose it? As an aside, wargames with fiddly sets of counters or plastic miniatures aren't much use. We need wargames that can be put together without much more difficulty than chess or shogi. That bears thinking about, too, but it's beside the point for this post.

Let's assume that I can have a d6 or three and a d20. From there, it's easy to put together an OD&D variant based on, say, Original Edition Delta, LotFP, and S&W:Whitebox. Classes are easy: fighters start at 2000xp for 2nd level, magic-users 2500xp, clerics (if you have them) 1500xp, thieves 1200 or 1250xp. Then double that amount at each level gain. Hit dice are in d6, each level for fighters, 2 for 3 levels for clerics, 1 for 2 levels for magic-users and thieves. Fighters get a bonus hit point at first level, other classes get a bonus hit point at levels they don't get hit dice (the bonus point goes away at the next level that gains a hit die). Combat is simple: a d20 plus the attacker's hit dice and plus the defender's armor class for 20+ to hit, 1d6 for damage (1d6-1 or roll 2d6 and take the low for light weapons like daggers, 1d6+1 or 2d6 and take the high for two-handed weapons). Saves are d20 plus level plus 4 (plus 5 for fighters) for 20+. Each class except fighters get a bonus of 2 in a single save category (spells for magic-users, thieves for devices such as traps or wands, clerics for poison or paralyzation). Thieves get 4 skill points at first level and 2 skill points at each further level, which they can use to add to any of the skills. Everyone gets all skills at 1 chance in 6 (meaning 6 on a d6, or 1 on a d6, or x1 damage for sneak attacking). The skills are: Climbing, Searching, Find Traps, Hunting/Foraging, Languages, Sleight of Hand, Sneak Attack, Stealth, Tinkering. Foraging and Hunting are affected by the terrain, from base 0 in 6 in desert, 1 in 6 in mountain or swamp, 2 in 6 in plains, or 3 in 6 in forest or jungle, each skill point increasing the chance by 1 in 6. In the desert, water can only be found on 1 chance in 12 (roll 2 d6, the first as even = 0/odd = 6, or low = 0/high = 6, the second as a regular d6), each skill point adding 1. Fighters get to attack once for each level if the opponents are 1HD.

The difficult part is remembering the details of spells. I still need to think about a good way to do those.

Anyway, experience points are 1 for each gold piece (or silver piece) recovered. Also 100 experience points for each HD of defeated enemies (or a more complicated way of doing it that goes from 5xp for a <1HD up to 1000xp for a 16HD creature or whatever, but this is probably too much effort). Special abilities add 1HD for this purpose each.

Stats are equally simple. Each one is 3d6, with a 13+ giving a bonus of +1, and a 8 or less giving a -1 penalty. If the characteristic for the class is 13+ (Str for fighters, Int for magic-users, Wis for clerics, Dex for thieves), gain +5% experience earned, plus the same bonus for Wisdom of 13+ (clerics count this twice), and again for Charisma of 13+. Charisma also has a number of followers equal to a base of 4, +1 at 13-15, +2 at 16-17, +3 at 18, -1 from 6-8, -2 from 4-5, -3 at 3. What the stats bonuses are used for varies by DM (except Charisma is always used for reaction and loyalty/morale checks). Reaction rolls are made on 2d6: 2-5 negative, 6-8 uncertain (will follow others if there is a plurality or majority), 9-12 positive.

Personally, I'd dump clerics (too much to remember two spell lists and two spell progressions). I don't know about thieves. The LotFP method is fairly simple, if there could be an easier way to remember their nine skills.

Encumbrance should probably be in some version of stone encumbrance (where each stone is 10-15 pounds of weight), so that a weapon carried so it can be easily used is 1 stone, light armor (AC7) is 1 stone, medium armor (AC5) is 2 stone, and heavy armor (AC3) is 4 stone. A shield (1 point bonus to AC) is 1 stone. 5000 coins is 1 stone. There are also bundles, 5 to the stone. A weapon carried packed away is 1 bundle, or 2 bundles for two-handed weapons. A character can carry Strength in stone at 3" move, half (round up) that at 9", halfway (round up) between the two at 6", and up to a quarter (round up) of Strength at 12". So, at Strength 10, a character could carry 3 stone at 12" move, 5 stone at 9", 8 stone at 6", or up to 10 stone at a rate of 3". Of course, someone could change the AC to ascending, but whatever.

So, here we are, coming toward a bare bones approach to roleplaying, using D&D as the basic framework. I can think of other, even simpler, approaches, but this one is a pretty damned good one, I think. If only I could find a good way to handle magic-user spells and spell progression. Maybe it would be better to take a page from The Arcanum and allow a magic-user to cast a number of spells equal to level plus one per day, limited to a spell level of the character's level divided by 2, rounded up. Still need to have the spell lists somehow, but that might be the best way to go.

Maybe later on, if I see any interest in the idea, I'll talk about some other simple roleplaying games that we could play in the post-apocalypse. Risus is an example, and there's a version of EABA designed specifically for playing while hiking, but I could talk about my own Trait System too. If you have any ideas or interest in the subject, please comment!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

World Of Hearth - The City-State Of Logreb

Last time, I talked about how I am working on the world of Hearth (pronounced "hurth", by the way), and how I am scaling down my initial setup ideas. So, here is some discussion about the specific area and situation that the players will start in. It is a small, backwater city-state known as Logreb which lies at the edge of the Paynim Empire, subject to the Grand Imperial City of Payn. This is just an overview, mind you, and the players will be offered any number of ways to go from here, in addition to the hints that are mentioned below.

I really need to get a better camera. These are
five mile hexes. Logreb is the large dot roughly
in the center of the map.
Logreb is a fairly small city, as these things go, having only around 13,000 citizens dwelling within its walls. Still, it is larger than any city that the players have ever seen. Logreb stands at a ford (now bridged, of course) on the southern bank of a meandering river called the Vandin that flows from the Ablashian lands to the north down south toward the central part of the Paynim Empire. Logreb is surrounded by fairly fertile fields feeding 12 market towns, ranging in size from about 1300 people up to around 4200, as well as many smaller villages. To the south of Logreb lie the Stavral Highlands, a stretch of hilly country that hides bandits and fiercely independent hill tribesmen (who may be the same thing, actually). To the north lies the Greenwood Forest, which is also filled with unfriendly tribesmen, as well as fairy creatures (according to local rumor). The majority of Logreb's farming villages are concentrated on a band between these two rough areas.

Logreb is ruled by a sorcerer-king named Traskal Devin (MU17), who is not particularly despotic. Lord Devin simply asks that the taxes are paid according to a reasonable schedule, and will only bring out his iron fist to combat activities that interfere with commerce, such as bandits or excessive graft. Murder is frowned upon, but only indifferently prosecuted (unless it is of one of the wealthier citizens). As a result, Logreb runs riot with a variety of decadent pleasures unavailable in the northern lands. The city's numerous thieves have developed a certain level of organization, modeling their structures on the more legitimate crafts guilds. There are some who say that nearly one out of every six people in the city is involved in these thieves' guilds, but surely they can't be that common. In any case, there seem to be several competing thieves' guilds in Logreb. If there are any assassins in Logreb, they are not publicly known.

Less than fifteen miles to the south of Logreb stands a lonely ruin just within the hills of the Stavral Highlands. It is ancient, so old that no one knows how long it has been there. The locals call it the Pile. It is said that there are tunnels and cellars below the ruin that contain vast treasures, as well as terrifying monsters. Certainly, it seems to be the center of raids by orcs, gnolls, ogres, and such. Perhaps those humanoid creatures have made a home in the tunnels underneath the ruin. The villagers nearby have taken to building wooden walls around their villages to keep out the raiders, but the fields still lie endangered, causing Lord Devin to send companies of soldiers to fend off the raiders. Unfortunately, he cannot spare too many for the purpose, as there are still problems with Ablashian glory-seeking warbands and forest tribesmen of the Greenwood to contend with to the north. Lord Devlin is trying to encourage his sorcerer-knights in the castles nearby to take a more active hand in combating the humanoid raiders, but they find themselves already busy with the hill bandits and tribesmen of the Highlands.

The PCs are all travelers from the Ablashian lands (Ablashian society is a lot more like American society than any others on Hearth, being structured more or less like the towns of the Old West, so it will be easiest for new players to assume those roles) who know each other from childhood (or who met weeks ago on the road). They have recently left their home counties and come to Logreb because it is the closest city that offers the possibility of a better, or at least more interesting, life with the potential for greater advancement than their home. Perhaps they will eventually want to travel further into the Paynim lands, or maybe back north to the Ablashian lands (or even further into the lands of the barbarian Kurai), but right now they have spent nearly all they have to get this far, and have little more than the clothes (and armor) on their backs and the weapons at their belts. What bright future awaits them?

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Setting Notes - Organizing My Thoughts On The World Of Hearth

I've been making maps and writing descriptions toward a fantasy setting to use for AD&D1E (yeah, I know, I keep talking about doing this and then never actually get to the part where I run it - I'm just really particular about my "vision", which makes me a pretentious twit, I realize), to be called Hearth, in keeping with the long tradition of giving worlds names that are similar to Earth. The problem I'm having is that I am really unfocused. I know the things I want, but when I write it, they aren't coming together. So, here's where I'm going to start trying to hammer out exactly what I am wanting to do.

First, there are some things I don't want to see in the world. This isn't going to be the sixguns & sorcery setting I also want to run, so guns are a thing I don't want to see. I don't want player nonhuman races - there may be elves and such, but not as playable races. Hardly as "races" in the sense of intelligent animals. More like spirits with bodies, maybe. Fey races with fey motivations. Goblins with fairer forms. Not to mention the goblins. I don't want clerics, or any proof of divinity in the world. All divine action should be "explainable" in terms of magic or such. Which doesn't mean that there won't be reasons to sacrifice at a roadside shrine, or to join the organized churches. Just that the sort of living saint that is embodied by clerics (or paladins, or druids) won't be in the setting. This also means no healing magic. Speaking of which, alignments will be discarded as the nonsense that they are, in favor of the "For King and Country" system found in an issue of Dragon magazine (so, with clerics and cleric spells gone, the only reference to alignment really left is the M-U's "Protection from Evil" spell, which will be redefined as "Protection from Spirit Beings", meaning anything native to other planes of existence).

OK, on to things that I do want. I want a group of barbarians who live like my understanding of the pre-Christian Irish or pre-Roman Gauls (or maybe a little like Orlanthi from Glorantha), but I want them on the fringes of the setting. I want the PCs to come from a relatively barbaric area I call "Ablashia", which is inspired by some concepts from an obscure game called Legendary Lives by Joe and Kathleen Williams. They will be coming to an empire of sorcerer-kings called the Paynim Empire, to one of the cities on the fringe of the empire. The Paynim include some periphery states with vampire- and pirate-kings (the latter very much like Pirates of the Caribbean, but without guns and cannon - the ideas there are inspired by the volume of Thieves' Guild dedicated to pirates) 
instead, and one of the sorcerer-kings is a lich necromancer who actually does have his people's best interests at heart, using undead to free his people from servitude. I want to draw some concepts from bad sword & sorcery films like The Warrior and the Sorceress, and include an order of fighting monks (not Monks, more like Paladins who are redesigned to better fit the cosmology of the setting; maybe I'll even call them Homeracs) whose religion was crushed and scattered, so they wander the world, dispensing justice according to their code and helping the weak against the strong who want to exploit them. I want a people who have made alliance with dragons, worshiping them and fighting at their side, and even from their backs. I want demon cults, but I want it so that not all demons are inimical to humanity. I want werewolf warbands in the deep woods and assassin cults on distant mountaintops. I want steppe nomads whose elite warriors ride into battle on the backs of bulls, and who make alliance with wandering bands of Minotaurs. I want Elves who are sadly watching the ancient forests fading away, and who are fading with them (their leaders being something like Arafel from The Dreamstone and The Tree of Swords and Jewels, almost gods themselves). I want Dwarves who monomaniacally maintain the world-machine in secret tunnels at the heart of the mountains. I want Goblins who are fairy creatures that steal children and hold terrible markets in the middle of the night.

So, the nonhuman, non-fairy/giant, non-undead, intelligent races. I want Minotaurs, obviously. I also want Githyanki and Githzerai, Mind Flayers, Kzaddich and Tsalakians, Lew Pulsipher's Timelords (Dragon 65), Artificers of Yothri and their Amphorons, the array of non-goblin humanoids (Orcs, Kobolds, Gnolls, Flinds, Ogres, Ogrillons, mainly), Kuo-toa, Locathah, Sahuagin, Beholders, Centaurs, Tabaxi, Aarakocra, Grimlocks, Lizardmen, Bullywugs, Yuan Ti, Galeb Duhr, Treants, Aboleths, Doppelgangers, Harpies, Merfolk, Neo-Otyughs and Otyughs, Ropers, Su-monsters, Troglodytes, Tritons, Neogi and Umber Hulks, Mi-go, Trolls, Thugtoads and Todawan Masters, Glurm (Zen Frogs), Crabmen, Dertesha, Draug, Formians, Ratlings, Mogura-jin, and Maun-Ge. This, as I said, does not include fairy and giant races, the undead, or entities native to other planes of existence (although, perhaps some come from other worlds). This is going to be the hardest to deal with, since as natural creatures they have to exist in places on the world, and I have to work out how they fit with the human nations. Some of them (Githyanki and Githzerai, Kzaddich and Tsalakians, Artificers of Yothri, Mi-go) live in other planes of existence, even though they do not originate there, or on other worlds, so those considerations are not so important. Similarly, a number of these races live under the sea or under the surface of the world, so they just need to be placed generally. But the humanoids, the Draug, and others have their own nations that need to be considered.

Religion is going to be twofold. That is, there are two types of religion: the Churches and the pagan gods (which include demons). The Churches will have a hierarchy that the PCs could get involved in. Those ideas will be similar to the way religion is handled in Flashing Blades. There might also be incidents of divine intervention in rare instances. The pagan gods will have shrines where they can receive sacrifices. They will be individual, powerful beings existing in a particular place. That is, there might be a "Zeus" (Zeus will probably not actually be one of the pagan gods in the setting) who lives at the shrine in Highgate, while another "Zeus" lives at the temple in Payn. The two, Zeus of Highgate and Zeus of Payn, are not the same entity, and don't share knowledge between each incarnation, though a person who has spent a lot of time learning about the "Zeus type" would have an advantage in knowing how to approach a new Zeus encountered at a different temple/shrine. There might, additionally, be slight differences between the two incarnations. The only real difference between the pagan gods and the demons is that demons only exist in one place at a time - there is only one Demogorgon in all the world, who will only be able to show up to one summoner at a time (well, also most of the demons do not necessarily have humanity's best interests at heart). In this sense, the Titans (for instance) are a type of demon. The same could be said for any number of other powerful entities (Bahamut and Tiamat, for example).

There are several competing Churches in the setting. I've written some versions of them on this blog before. There is the Tetradic Church which worships the four Elemental Gods, whose influence is transmitted from the Celestial World to the mundane world through the mediation of the twelve Zodiacal Beasts (the Church is firm that there is no truth to the heretical claims of a secret thirteenth Zodiacal Beast), each of whom has three Decanic Solars. Each Solar has seven Planetars through which the elemental forces are transmitted to the world. This one will be organized mostly like medieval Christianity, with a few significant differences. I'm thinking that they should have an equivalent to the cultus of Saints, but I'm not sure yet how I want to handle that.

Next up is the Fatalist Church, who worship the Lady of Fate, the Weaving Goddess. They have a fairly rigid code of justice which governs them. I base them loosely on medieval Islam, though, so they aren't fundamentalist about things.

There is the Path of the Veil, which is a Church whose holy orders are composed of Monks and Illusionists. They believe that the world is a veil of illusion pulled over the eyes of the inhabitants, who are themselves illusions. This will be a lot like Buddhism in organization. I may have it comprise several independent Churches, similar to the way that Buddhism has everything from Tibetan to Zen forms.

I'm not sure if there will be a Church of the One and the Prime, which would be worshipers of the Modrons. If I do, it will be the most rigid and fundamentalist of the Churches. A place for everyone and everyone in their place.

I don't yet know what the religion of the Homeracs (or whatever I end up calling the reskinned Paladins) will be like yet.

I started out making a huge map of the whole continent - a large affair nearly 5000 miles across and over 3000 north to south. Then I realized: I don't need that much space to start. Canning that large map will actually make the placement of the nonhumans a lot easier, since I can just add area when I get around to them. I still think that I should have a general idea of the layout of the continent, but it will be easier to make a rough map that is penciled in (subject to changes) than to set things down in stone (or ink) right now. That kinda makes me a little sad, since I'd like to have the detail of the World of Greyhawk right off the bat, with the populations and troop dispositions roughed out, but I can live with the more immediate necessities.

If you've gotten this far, I am impressed! Thank you for reading, and I would love to hear your thoughts.