Back in Black

Unexpectedly, I found myself running Classic Traveller again last weekend.

It happened like this; everyone who turned up for the family lunch was a gamer and a Firefly fan, we discussed the theory that Firefly is based on Joss Whedon’s game of Traveller, and then it seemed like a good idea to try out the game. I’m confident in playing CT off the cuff; I’ve been running it on and off for nearly 40 years now, and I can do it in my sleep.

In fact, I’m pretty sure I have, at some point.

I didn’t want to deflate their enthusiasm by taking them through the complex mini-game which is character generation, so I did a quick on-the-fly conversion of the archetypes in Savage Worlds (it’s just as easy going that way as they other, takes me less than a minute for each one) and let them pick the ones they wanted. So it was that we wound up with a party composed of a Marine and three Others:

  • Captain Joe "Cap’n Crunch" Williams, ex-Marine, hot-headed veteran of a war with “the space bugs”, who is AWOL and wanted for desertion.
  • Fromar the scientist.
  • Ms Posey Avril, retired pirate, whose pension represents the income from the gastropub franchise and doughnut shop she started to launder her ill-gotten gains, and who has taken her lucky gun “Elmira” out adventuring in search of more money (as she needs extensive dental work).
  • Lisa Andrews, healer with secret psionic powers.

I know. Roll with me on this.

THE HEIST

The party found themselves mustered out on Regina in search of work, and I dropped entry 15 from 76 Patrons on them; break into a corporate executive’s mansion, swap his prized US $1 purple postage stamp for a fake, and return the original to the patron (who was called Mr Johnson as a nod to everyone’s experience with Shadowrun). I also dragged out GDW’s Merc: 2000, which I keep around for the generic location plans, and used the Mansion and the Remote Estate for the target’s mansion.

After lengthy debate, the party hires sturdy mounts (which they decided were giant riding beetles, so now there are giant beetles on Regina) to case the joint, persuading their random police encounters (park rangers on grav belts) that they were tourists. Armed with knowledge of the general layout, they spend about 90 minutes brainstorming and discarding plans, until they settle on sealing themselves in crates and having themselves delivered by courier to the mansion while the boss was away on business.

We’re now about two hours in, and the only dice rolls necessary so far have been the check against law level for police harassment, and police reaction rolls to the PCs’ story. While they were discussing their approach, I discarded the rest of the situation and dreamed up a couple of plot twists.

Cautiously cutting their way out of the crates, they realise they are in a garage, under camera surveillance, with a  couple of air/rafts to hand. With a cunning plan and a couple of lucky Computer rolls, they gain access to the network via a cable under a workbench and set the cameras to loop yesterday’s surveillance. They realise the shortcomings of this, but it’s the best they can do. While the scientist dismounts the GPS and tracking devices from one of the air/rafts to give them a getaway vehicle, the others poke their heads out of the skylight and observe the unexpected return of the target and a couple of other suits.

(I know, but they do not, that the business trip was a diversion to cover a meeting with other corporate types about insider trading.)

Fromar ransacks the garage, A-Team style, and comes out with a long list of items including glue and a nailgun. Captain Williams then leads the motley crew stealthily across the garden to the stables, where a pair of riding dinosaurs (actually poni, the six-legged brontosauri in the Scout Service logo) are minding their own business in stalls. The party now shoots them with the nailgun, causing them to stampede out of the stables past the mansion.

With the occupants thus distracted, Our Heroes move up to the mansion and gain entrance through the rear door, finding themselves in the kitchen with the catering staff, who are preparing cocktails and canapes for the meeting upstairs. Swiftly discarding their plans of violence, they pass themselves off as frightened delivery men, looking for somewhere to hide from the dinosaur stampede. Manufacturing an excuse, they check the mansion plans they found online earlier and rule out the entire ground floor, deciding that the stamp must be either in the master bedroom or the office, then scuttle upstairs towards those rooms.

At the top of the stairs they find the three suits, but given that there are stampeding dinosaurs outside and one of the bodyguards has panicked and opened fire on them, it seems logical that the suits are looking out at the carnage from the balcony. Thus it is that the party manage to sneak up behind them, intending to knock them unconscious (by this point they have forgotten they are supposed to get in and out without being noticed). Using Hands at Close range (+2) against non-combatant NPCs (+3) in no armour (+1) means they can’t miss, and they start to understand how deadly CT combat is. However, none of them do enough damage to put down their targets.

It’s at this point they notice the large, newly-arrived, black air/raft outside, with the cargo doors sliding back, and the men in black ski masks inside with auto rifles pointing at the group on the balcony. Williams, Avril and Andrews grab the suits and drag them away from the window towards the stairs, while Fromar dodges away into the office, where he sees the stamp in a nitrogen-filled display case.

(Beyond thinking someone wants the suits dead, I have no idea what’s going on here. One of the joys of sandbox play for the GM is you can do stuff like this and leave the players to come up with a reason for it.)

This leaves everyone except Fromar in the beaten zone for the auto rifles, and Posey, Andrews and one of the suits are hit and knocked out while all six are tumbling down the stairs. Thinking quickly, Williams browbeats the two suits still standing into helping him drag the wounded into one of the servants’ quarters.

Fromar smashes the case, reasoning that any investigation will blame the firefight, and swaps the stamps before picking up one of the suits’ tablet PCs and escaping through the office window. While in the garage earlier, he had thoughtfully set up the air/raft’s autopilot for remote operation, and now summons it to the windows by the servants’ quarters. Everyone piles in, while outside the ski masks are abseiling down from their air/raft and finishing off the staff and bodyguards.

The autopilot starts heading back to the starport, but the black air/raft turns in pursuit. Fortunately, one of the suits can fly, and seizes the controls, swooping into nearby woods where they might evade pursuit. Unfortunately, he gets shot in the back of the head and dies. Fromar takes control and pulls back on the joystick to avoid crashing into the trees; he can’t fly, but anyone knows that will pull the nose up. Everyone falls out of the air/raft except Williams and one of the suits, who manage to grab onto something, and Fromar, who knew this was coming. Their pursuers take advantage of this to start walking auto rifle fire down from the nose of the air/raft into the passenger seats. Fromar wrestles wildly with the controls, but has no idea what he is doing and winds up flipping the air/raft broadside on and spinning it along the long axis. Everyone jumps clear as the two air/rafts collide and explode.

(This saves me from revealing the third plot twist, which is that one of the hired killers at the mansion is an old war buddy of Williams’. I’ll save that for later.)

A few minutes later, as the wounded recover consciousness, the party explains that they are members of a super-secret counter-terrorist unit, acting on a tipoff to protect the suits. Leaving the suits where the park rangers can find them, they vanish into the night and repair to the starport to lick their wounds.

Mal Reynolds would’ve been proud of them.

REFLECTIONS

Classic Traveller, even the 1977 edition, still does the job. It’s noticeable that the players came up with detailed backstories and personalities with no Edges, Hindrances, Ads/Disads or whatever you want to call them. You really don’t need rules for that stuff, you know.

Play is very liberating once people get used to the idea that it’s all about player skill, the character statistics are largely incidental, and going off-piste is not only permitted but actually expected and encouraged; everyone focussed on the story and their cunning plans.

The party psionic, forgot she had psi powers and didn’t use them. I don’t know why this happens in my CT games, but it almost always does, whoever plays the psion; it’s one reason I’m relaxed about allowing them in the game.

None of us felt the need to pull out any figures, whereas with Savage Worlds or Shadowrun we always do that instinctively.

I’d intended this to be a one-off, but the players loved the speed of play and freedom of action, got really attached to their characters, and they want to carry on with them. In addition, all of them want to try Original D&D as well now, with a wilderness adventure. I’ll probably use Labyrinth Lord; OD&D as written is just too disorganised. So I guess 2014 is shaping up to be the Year of Retro Gaming.

One of the group, who runs a Shadowrun game with about a dozen players and has been complaining about how long it takes them to do anything, took the battered 1977 rulebooks away to read, saying he would try converting his campaign to CT to speed it up.

All of this just reinforces my long-held belief that the rules don’t matter. We had just as much fun in the 1970s, and last weekend, with the simplest of rules and scenarios, as we do with any current RPG.

Review: City Deck and Risks & Rewards Deck

“Bob loses saving throw vs. shiny with a penalty of -5. Bob takes 2d8 damage to the credit card.” – Charles Stross, The Fuller Memorandum

OK, now I’m going to break my rule about only buying stuff on my list…

You may have noticed the absence of Captain Flack and his band of ragged zombie hunters recently. Apart from assorted real-life distractions, I’m going through a phase of not wanting to set up the table with figures or even Hex Map Pro with tokens. That ruled out All Things Zombie until recently, when I remembered Ed Teixeira has an app for that; the City Deck, originally for ATZ but now also used with 5150 and other THW games.

And since the ATZ Risks & Rewards Deck was on offer, I threw that in the cart as well, since the biggest flow-breaker for me is pausing the game while I work out what is in the building I just entered.

In a Nutshell: Card decks for All Things Zombie and other THW games; the City Deck lets you set up random city blocks for a game without laying out terrain, while the Risks & Rewards deck tells you what’s inside each one.

FORMAT AND CONTENTS

As with maps, it’s hard to separate the two with these products. Each deck has 54 cards, and a short rules sheet explaining how to use them. No pictures today ‘cos I’m just too tired, you’ll see them in use presently.

City Deck

In the City Deck, each card has a picture of a building, with entrances marked, and annotations showing the Encounter Rating of the building by time of day, how many floors it has, where the ATM is (if it has one), and the building’s name and type.

In play, you lay out 16 cards face down to form an intersection, and turn them over to reveal them when the player group moves into an adjacent zone. The ATZ movement rules are abstracted so that figures move one card length ("movement zone") per turn, two if fast moving; other than that, normal rules apply.

The thing which had not occurred to me until I read the back of the box is that I could lay out fewer cards to simulate a suburban (say, 8 cards) or rural environment (say, one or two). D’oh!

Risks & Rewards Deck

The Risks & Rewards Deck replaces rolling dice and table lookups for encounters. When you enter a building, you draw a card and read the data for the type of area you’re exploring – urban, suburban or rural.

The card will tell you how many zombies or NPCs you’ve found, the Rep and weapon for the first NPC in that group, and what loot you’ll find if you dispose of the occupants. If you find more than one NPC, you draw additional cards for their stats, but you don’t get more loot.

The deck also includes some new items – baseball bat, bow, crossbow, grenade, machete, SAW and scope – and some special NPC encounters: Carolee the THW Girl (sadly no longer with us in the real world), vampires and casters (from the High Rise to Hell supplement, which is on my list) – no stats for those in the deck, so you could either ignore them or use the stats from another THW game, say Larger Than Life or Warrior Heroes.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I’d love to see something similar to the City Deck for rural and suburban areas too. I’d also be interested in Risk & Reward decks for other THW games, in effect pre-generated PEFs.

Although the postage costs from the USA were nowhere near as bad as I expected, a PDF version I could print and laminate myself would be welcome. I would’ve bought these when they first came out if it were not for the perceived postage costs, or indeed if I had realised they wouldn’t be as bad as I expected.

CONCLUSIONS

The Risks & Rewards Deck is mostly a tool to speed up the game, and nothing you couldn’t work up yourself with a few hours’ effort and some dice. It’s a convenience, albeit one I’m happy to pay for. The UK minimum wage is currently something like £6.31 per hour, or just over $10; it would definitely take me more than a couple of hours to generate 50+ encounters for each area type, and I’d rather use that time playing.

The City Deck is more innovative, in that it replaces terrain, allows you to compress a standard ATZ table down to about 18" on a side, and can be used in any of THW’s modern or SF games.

In both cases, the rules are simple enough to be ported to other games very easily. I expect they’ll see use with Savage Worlds as well at some point, and I think it would be possible to reskin them for a fantasy setting without too much work. I’m already thinking about how I could do a suburban or rural deck, but actually saying “This quarter of the board is wooded,” would be enough. I just need a few sheets of paper to scribble on, maybe with a card-sized grid to break it up into movement zones. I bet I could do a dungeon generator based on the rules as well.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5. I will definitely use these. Just as soon as there is a gap between work, driving and sleeping.

Shadows of Keron: A Retrospective

It’s time to call this one. Time of death: April 2014.

I have enough material to keep running the game for another year, maybe two, but with several of the group dealing with serious illness in the family, two running after a new baby, one off to university and two off to Japan, the best I can hope for is a long hiatus. All the same, it’s been fun while it lasted, and a real success. My only regret is that it petered out, rather than ending on the kind of slam-bang, white-knuckle high note I’d hoped for; but such is life.

If you count the city of Irongrave where the PCs began, which was absorbed into the Dread Sea Dominions once Beasts & Barbarians captured my imagination, this campaign has lasted about four years of real time; one of the longest I’ve ever run.

The game introduced half-a-dozen new people to role-playing, and four of them still play on a regular basis; that’s a win, right there. I converted the whole group to Savage Worlds – win – and they converted me to Shadowrun – win. I got to know Piotr Korys and Umberto Pignatelli – win.

Over the course of the campaign, the PCs have grown from their lowly beginnings at Novice rank to the edge of Legendary. They have travelled across the Dominions from the Independent Cities to the Troll Mountains to the Ivory Savannah. They have looted tombs, toppled kingdoms and slain a god. They have upset the balance of power in the Dominions for centuries to come by gifting both the Ascaian Amazons and the Smith-Priests of Hulian the secret of steel-making.

What now for our heroes?

The Warforged intends seizing control of the abandoned City of the Winged God, where he plans to create a new race of warforged and take over the world – for the greater good of all, of course. (It always starts like that, doesn’t it? Then there are dissenters, then the Blast powers and frying pans come out, and the screaming starts…)

Nessime has been instructed by the Smith-Priests to make her way to Jalizar, there to help contain its ancient evils.

Gutz’ present whereabouts are unknown; but the party’s jewels are safe with him, wherever he and Maximus the warhorse are – at least until he finds a tavern with dancing-girls…

“When it’s over, when it’s done – let it go.” – The Bangles, Let It Go

Hyperspace

"If the Drive allowed ships to sneak up on planets, materializing without warning out of hyperspace, there could be no Empire even with the Field. There’d be no Empire because belonging to an Empire wouldn’t protect you. Instead there might be populations of planet-bound serfs ruled at random by successive hordes of space pirates. Upward mobility in society would consist of getting your own ship and turning pirate." – Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Building the Mote in God’s Eye

I was going to reboot the Arioniad and move the Dark Nebula campaign forward in this post, but I got distracted by work, family stuff and travel. Lots of travel.

While driving, I’ve been thinking about hyperspace as presented in the Savage Worlds Sci Fi Companion, and playing my usual game: What would the setting be like if it were a 100% faithful reflection of the rules?

Page 42 of the SFC tells us the following…

  • You need a computer and a Knowledge (Astrogation) roll to make a jump – these are to plot a course that avoids planets and other obstacles.
  • Jumps are split into three classes: Same star system (easy, doesn’t use much fuel); same galaxy (average); different galaxy (hard, lots of fuel).
  • A jump takes no time but you arrive 2d6 days from the destination, less if you roll well or spend extra fuel to arrive early, the same day if you like. At first I assumed you emerged first, then chose whether to spend the extra energy, but the rules are unclear on whether you emerge first – although it seems pretty clear that you roll before deciding whether to speed up.
  • Fuel is usually bought from spaceports.
  • You roll for supply and demand of various trade goods after deciding on the starship’s next destination.

The consensus on the SW forum is that this is more like Star Wars than anything. I’d also point to Cordwainer Smith’s space3, the later Foundation novels, and (to an extent) the Stargate franchise; effectively, hyperspace is a point rather than a plane or volume, and hyperspace travel is a condition rather than movement as such.

The Rules As Written have some interesting implications for a setting.

  • The campaign doesn’t need a map, because you can jump from any star system to any other star system directly. The PCs may have star charts, but neither the players nor the GM need them. Thus. campaigns are less likely to be sandbox games, because the players’ decisions on where to go next are less important; without chains of systems forming routes, going to planet A doesn’t commit you to visiting B before you get to C.
  • There are no choke points to defend. To my mind, this means interstellar navies behave more like modern ballistic missile submarines than "conventional" star fleets; the Federation Navy can’t mount a spirited defence at Outpost Five to stop the Imperial Navy’s fleet breaking through to nuke Earth, but they can certainly nuke the Empire’s homeworld right back. (I disagree with Niven and Pournelle here; an empire can still protect you, but it does so by deterrence.)
  • Merchant ships are probably armed. The Navy can’t protect you from pirates unless it’s right alongside every ship, every jump. Not going to happen.
  • You can’t blockade a star system. Smugglers and blockade runners can jump right past you, and if the GM allows precision jumps, the ships can go from inside one warehouse to inside another. (Jumps are probably not that precise, as if they were, you wouldn’t need ships; a big flatbed truck would be just as good, and a lot cheaper.)
  • If the GM isn’t careful, you can make an absolute killing trading. With a large enough selection of worlds, there will always be somewhere selling Fuel (the most valuable item at a base value of $2,000 per cargo space) for half price, and somewhere else desperate to buy it for five times the base price, yielding a revenue of $9,000 per cargo space per trip. This is probably why the rules state you pick your destination first, then roll for supply and demand there – notice the implication that the adventure takes the party to that planet anyway, with trade being a sideline for the players, even if it’s the PCs’ main purpose.
  • Since you typically refuel at a spaceport, travel off the beaten path is rare. Jump co-ordinates for specific worlds may be valuable prizes, or scenario McGuffins. Yes, you can jump straight to the Treasure Planet, but only if you know where it is.

I actually rather like the idea of this inferred setting; it’s fast, furious and unusual. However, the fact that it’s unusual suggests there’s a reason why games and literature generally use jump routes. So tell me, gentle readers, what have I overlooked?

Review: Stellar Heroes

Good Lord, Mandate Archive: Stellar Heroes is out already… as promised, a review as soon as I got my hands on it.

In a Nutshell: Stars Without Number supplement for running adventures with one PC and a GM. 7 page PDF, free to download from RPGNow or the Sine Nomine website.

CONTENTS

This Mandate Archive is split into three parts.

First, there is a one-page explanation of what the supplement is for (running Stars Without Number adventures for one or two PCs), and how that differs from normal play (since the group is smaller, consensus is reached much more quickly, so stories are faster-moving).

The second part modifies SWN’s rules for a single PC, who has fewer hit points and a narrower range of skills than a full party. The changes are largely common to Solo Heroes and Scarlet Heroes from the same publisher, both of which cover the same ground for fantasy. To summarise:

  • The PC always wins initiative.
  • Damage and healing dice are read differently, making PCs tougher and NPCs much more fragile, but without changing the scenario or characters.
  • The Fray Die lets the PC roll damage each turn against any NPC in range, even if he is doing something else that round.
  • Defying Death essentially allows the PC to trade hit points for success in a check they would not otherwise make.
  • Lone heroes gain skill points at twice the normal rate when levelling up.

This part closes with a half-page detailed example of how the rules changes work in play.

The third part is a short adventure for a single 1st level hero, pitting him or her against a group of terrorists threatening to crash an orbital station into a surface city. It’s a 10-location dungeon crawl in space, with statblocks for relevant NPCs. Can you say Die Hard? I knew you could…

FORMAT

Black on gold front cover, full colour back cover advertising Scarlet Heroes, and in between, five pages of black on white two-column text in the usual crisp, effective layout.

CONCLUSION

This supplement does what it sets out to do, and does it well; specifically, it applies a handful of rules tweaks to SWN which allows a single PC to survive, and successfully complete, an adventure written for a full-sized group, without rewriting the adventure or the character sheets.

However, what I’m really looking for is a science fiction version of Scarlet Heroes – rules for GM-less SF with a built in setting. I’m hopeful that just as Solo Heroes led to Scarlet Heroes, so Stellar Heroes will lead to something bigger.

Dark Nebula: Setting Inferences

“The Klingons are a proud warrior race, and have no need of fripperies such as fridge magnets.” – Bill Bailey

Having done the map, the next stage in my budding Dark Nebula campaign is to peruse the boardgame and see what I can infer from it. For this purpose I’m considering Savage Worlds, Stars Without Number, 5150 and Traveller as candidates for the rules – I expect to use all of them in this setting at some point, so I’m looking for common denominators.

TRAVELLER

Let’s start with Traveller, because the designers were writing Classic Traveller at the same time they were writing Dark Nebula and used some of the same concepts, so it should be easiest.

Jump Routes

There are only a handful of J-3 routes, and a single J-4 route.

J-1 drives would be limited to a few specific clusters of worlds; in the Solomani Confederation there is one group of four worlds and one pair, in the Aslan Hierate there is a group of three, there’s a group of six worlds between Mizah and Daanarni, and there are a few isolated pairs out in the boonies.

However, there’s only one system you can’t reach with a Jump-2 drive at the start of the game, and that’s Taida Na, which initially can only be reached from Valka using a J-4 drive. So the majority of starships would have Jump-2 drives; you really don’t need anything more, and you have severely limited movement with less. The military might have a few J-3 ships, maybe even the odd J-4, but that’s debatable.

This is somewhere that Mongoose Traveller may have an edge; in the board game, any ship can traverse any jump route; so the Mongoose warp drive variant rule might be a better fit. (And while we’re at it, given the unusually high proportion of waterless worlds, maybe the Mongoose hard SF option for world generation.)

Population

Kuzu and Maadin are both specified as homeworlds with "high populations". That term has a specific meaning in Traveller, namely a population of 9 (billions) or A (tens of billions) – looking ahead to SWN, and because I normally assign the minimum value necessary to match other evidence, I’ll go with 9. Given their status in the game, they deserve class A starports as well.

Technology

As far as technology goes, J-4 drives and battle dress for jump troops, but lack of evidence for anything higher-tech than that, place the maximum TL in the region at D (13). There’s also no need for it anywhere other than Maadin and Kuzu, so that sets their TL.

Races

The boardgame is silent on these, but familiarity with the default Traveller setting will tell you that Solomani humans and Aslan are present. In the past I’ve added droyne, ithklur, vilani and others, and may do so this time as well, but let’s see how far we can get with just the basic two for the moment.

STARS WITHOUR NUMBER

Spike-4 drives are needed to move 4 hexes in SWN, and require TL5, so we can assign a population of billions and TL 5 to the two homeworlds, which are also Regional Hegemons. Races will include humans and also hochog, renamed and described as if they were aslan – the Proud Warrior Race is such a classic SF trope that almost every game has it, and SWN is no exception.

SAVAGE WORLDS / 5150

The above topics don’t really matter in SW or 5150, and neither game needs much about them beyond a little narrative. The only problem with 5150 is that it’s not immediately obvious how to do aslan, but to start with I’ll just give them +1 Rep for being the Proud Warrior Race.

As regards Savage Worlds, I rule out High-Space at this point because it’s grounded in transhumanism, and CT/Dark Nebula aren’t, so the Sci Fi Companion is a better fit for this particular game. I make a note that natives of Maadin and Kuzu might have the High-Tech (Minor) Hindrance under the SW SFC, and that jumps are only possible along mapped routes. On the racial front, we have humans and rakashans; those are the only two races obviously needed, and the boardgame is about a war between the two, so it seems reasonable for the rakashan racial hostility to be directed at humans.

THE ARIONIAD

As usual, I’m feeling lazy, and rather than create new characters for the SW implementation of the Nebula, I’ll reactivate Arion and company, setting Gordon’s as yet undocumented civilisation in a planet-less system in the Dark Nebula itself. Daanarni becomes the aslan name for Antares, Halfway becomes the orbital station at Hasara, and I’m sure I can retcon in other stuff easily enough when I need it. The Arioniad’s riff of a loose alliance of worlds threatened by a human empire fits best with the Mizah cluster facing off against the Solomani Confederation; good luck, guys.

Savage Scoutships

The scoutship is a venerable SF stereotype; the Classic Traveller Type S, Jack Vance’s Type 9B Locator, the craft flown by Eric Frank Russell’s scouts, the Runabouts from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and so forth. If there’s a ship I know well, this is it. So it’s a good place to start from in exploring ship design. Let’s try the Type S under the SF Companion and High-Space.

SFC SCOUTSHIP

The scoutship needs to be Small, so that it can be operated by one person. That gives a base cost of $2M and 20 available Mod slots, which I’ll use up as follows:

  • Atmospheric: 3 Mods, $300K.
  • Crew Space x 2: 2 Mods, $200K. Allows for 8 crew members.
  • FTL Drive: 3 Mods, $12M.
  • Garage/Hangar: 4 Mods, $1M. Allows for one vehicle up to size 8. (Hmm. In the Rules As Written, that could be another scoutship, which in turn could have a garage with another scoutship…)

The final statblock is:

Small Starship: Acc/TS 50/700, Climb 3, Toughness 20 (5), Crew 1, Cost $15.5M.

Remaining Mods: 8 (about 27 cubic metres, or just under 2 displacement tons, Traveller-style).

Notes: Atmospheric, 2 x Crew Space, FTL Drive, Garage/Hangar.

Weapons: None.

HIGH-SPACE SCOUTSHIP

I’m using version 1-1 of the High-Space Fleet Manual for this. It should be capable of being owned by a single Novice PC, who would have one Ship Acquisition Point, giving the ship 3 points of Traits and 3 free Edges.

The initial attributes are Manoeuvre d4, Computer d4, FTL d4, Displacement d4 and Quality d4. I select the Explorer design edge (which doesn’t count against the basic three from AP), gaining +1 FTL die-type and +1 Pace, then go back and allocate the three Trait points to Manoeuvre, Displacement, and Quality, boosting them to d6 each. The Explorer design edge also gives it 2 payloads per displacement (12 total) and one hardpoint per displacement (6 total).

I browse through the Hindrances, but none of them seem appropriate, so move on to Edges, and select:

  • Luggage (1 payload).
  • Guest Accommodation (1 payload). This allows the ship to carry its displacement (6) in passengers. High-Space is silent on accomodation for crew members, but the table on p. 7 implies that you could have up to 4 Novice PCs pooling their points to get this ship, so since this edge is specifically for non-crew accommodation, I reckon the ship must have crew quarters for four people.

I can’t give it an air/raft hangar without boosting the Displacement to d8, so we’ll skip that. Life pods don’t feel right as an alternative.

Pace is Manoeuvre plus Quality plus one, so 9. Toughness is half the sum of Displacement and Quality, so 6. The final statblock is:

Attributes: Manoeuvre d6, Computer d4, FTL d6, Displacement d6 and Quality d6.

Pace: 9. Toughness: 6.

Edges: Explorer; Luggage, Guest Accommodation. One edge and 10 payload held in reserve for later use.

Hindrances: None.

Weapons: None.

COMPARISON AND CONCLUSIONS

The SFC ship looks like a vehicle, the High-Space one looks like a character. They both have quite a bit of room for later customisation as the PC crew advance or get richer, and either is well within the reach of a group of Novice PCs – High-Space handles that with Acquisition Points, the Companion by recommending the group should start with a Medium ship, an FTL Drive, and $2M of other Mods.

The SFC ship was definitely faster and easier to do, because the design sequence is more linear and less ambiguous; but the High-Space one was more fun.

Review: SFC vs High Space vs SF Toolkits

“Hey! Are we playing horseshoes, honey? No, I don’t think we are.
You’re close! (Close!) But no cigar!”
- Weird Al Yankovic, Close But No Cigar

This one’s for Cloud Divider, who asked how the SFC stacks up against High-Space and the old SF Toolkits… A bit like this, CD; as you can see I got carried away, and wound up with something too big for a comment.

SFC VS HIGH-SPACE

While both of these focus on the space opera subgenre of science fiction, they’re looking at different versions of it.

The Sci Fi Companion emulates the kind of space opera written in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. It’s good for campaigns with the look and feel of Poul Anderson’s Polesotechnic League or Terran Empire, E C Tubb’s Dumarest saga, H Beam Piper’s Future History, Frank Herbert’s Dune series; movies like Star Wars; TV shows like Battlestar Galactica; games like Traveller, Star Frontiers, BattleTech. This is SF as Westerns-with-rayguns, and I’d say it’s closer to the original Star Wars movies than anything else in fiction.

High-Space mimics the sort of space opera written from the late 1980s onwards, by authors like Iain Banks, Alastair Reynolds, or Neal Asher; or games like Halo or Mass Effect. I can’t think of any movies or TV shows in this subgenre, but no doubt they exist. Transhumanism is central to the setting, with characters routinely being clones, cyborgs, AI software in robot bodies, sentient starships and what have you. For me, it resonates most with the videogame Mass Effect.

Mechanically, the main differences are these:

  • The SFC doesn’t add much as far as character creation goes; a couple of Knowledge skills, a handful of new Edges and Hindrances, and off you go. High-Space takes SW character generation and overlays careers and cultures, which for the most part give you a little character backstory and a couple of mandatory skills.
  • The SFC gives you a point-buy alien builder for making your own races. High-Space treats races as trappings for one of a half-a-dozen racial archetypes.
  • High-Space is set in a post-scarcity economy; the gear PCs have depends on their Rank rather than their available cash.
  • The SFC has a wider range of gear, especially weapons, but High-Space has a stronger focus on computers and hacking.
  • High-Space essentially treats starships as characters; in SFC, they’re just another type of vehicle. However, the rules in SFC are much easier for me to understand; I would love to use the High-Space rules as a plug-in (which incidentally they are designed for) but I found too many unanswered questions and violations of the laws of physics. Yes, I could house-rule around those, but I pay publishers for this stuff so that I don’t have to do that.
  • High-Space has a default setting, The Lantern, already specified. The SFC doesn’t.

SFC VS TOOLKITS

At the top level, the difference is one of style. The toolkits presented options (different ways to design a starship, for example), and encouraged the GM to pick one, or use them as inspiration for his own custom method; they offered advice and guidance. The Companion is more prescriptive, offering a single starship design method as the approved approach; it offers actual rules.

Things the Companion adds:

  • Nothing I’ve noticed. I could’ve missed something, mind.

Things it takes away:

  • The random alien creature generator. I get the feeling some of the actual creatures are gone too, but the page count is about the same, so maybe I’m wrong.
  • The Weird Science Edges and notes on that Arcane Background.
  • The superhero lair generator (from Necessary Evil).
  • Much of the GM’s advice on setting design.
  • I’m sure the total number of example vehicles, power armour suits etc. is lower; I haven’t checked to see if the surviving ones are new, or recycled.
  • Psionics and extra powers (which I think, but have not checked, are mostly in SWD now).
  • The notes on time travel.

Things it changes:

  • It’s aligned with Savage Worlds Deluxe rather than the earlier Explorers’ Edition. This doesn’t change much other than the chase rules.
  • Hacking and cyberspace. This is simplified, with a suggestion to use Interface Zero if you want more complexity.

MY PREFERENCE

Of the three – High-Space, the SF toolkits, or the Sci Fi Companion – I prefer the Companion, for these reasons:

  • It’s easier for me to understand and explain to players. High-Space is unclear to me in places, and the toolkits offer too many options.
  • It’s a single, tightly-integrated book. Both of the other options are composed of three books, and the toolkits by their nature are not such a cohesive whole.
  • It’s closest to the type of game I like to run best, no doubt due to a youth misspent reading Poul Anderson and E C Tubb, and playing Classic Traveller.

Is there anything that makes the Companion a “must-have”? That depends on what you want. In my case, I like it for the vehicle and ship design rules, but I could (and have) run SF games without it. My usual rule of thumb is that if I’m still using it on a regular basis a year after I bought it, it graduates to “must have”. Let’s see if I’m still as enthusiastic about it in January 2015…

The End of the Line

TimeZero is GRAmel’s time travel setting. I’m not sure yet if I will run it, but I enjoyed reading it and enjoy thinking about the possibilities. Of these, the questions that intrigue me the most are:

  • What is really going on in the 45th century and beyond?
  • Who are the Priors?
  • What does the Triad want?

These questions are part of the central mystery of TimeZero, and the setting as written leaves them open – presumably so that the Game Master can answer them however he wishes for his own campaign. Here are some possibilities that occurred to me:

BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU

“You will be inserted via Time Gate into this storeroom at midnight on July 7th, 3505 AD, plus or minus 12 hours as usual. At precisely 12:38 and 7 seconds, you will leave the storeroom and proceed 15 meters along this corridor to the door on the left; you have exactly 19 seconds to reach the door, circumvent the lock leaving no evidence whatsoever, pass through the door and close it behind you. On no account go down the side corridor on your right, which you must cross no earlier than 12:38 and 14 seconds, and no later than 12:38 and 17 seconds…”

Remember the Timewatch motto? “If it is written in the history books, then so it must be.”

As technology advances, the history books turn into databases with more and more details about more and more people. Timewatch Operatives are recruited from people who won’t be missed, and do their jobs in the grey areas of unrecorded history.

Near Future missions must be planned and executed with extreme precision, so that the Operatives are never in view of people, synths or surveillance cameras; this is the reason that they are so much more tightly controlled than missions to earlier eras, and may be the reason Timewatch has synth agents in the first place, as synths find this level of control easier to deal with than humans.

By the 45th century, everything is recorded; there are no people who won’t be missed, and there are no grey areas. Both the need for, and possibility of, Timewatch missions disappear under ever-present surveillance – indeed, this may be the reason for that surveillance.

In this version of events, the Priors are an agency of a far-future government which most players would think of as a police state; the Triad is a dissident faction which acts to prevent that government from taking power, restoring freedom and power to the people. As it watches everyone, all the time, the government knows about the Triad; but the Triad cannot simply be eliminated, because recorded history says it exists… so if the players are ever in a position to do so, the Priors will prevent them.

ELVIS HAS LEFT THE BUILDING

“For every person, every species, there is a time to move on; or if you prefer, to move aside and let someone else try.”

In the 45th century, the Earth and humanity as we understand it have ceased to exist. Whether because of the Rapture, the Singularity, because people have “ascended” to become godlike beings of pure energy, or simply because the human race has had its time and died out, there’s nobody left.

Timewatch doesn’t need to run missions to protect the timeline from that point on, because there is nothing left to protect; once humanity reaches that point, it’s over.

In this vision of the future, the Priors are the last ones out of the building, making sure the lights are turned off and the doors are locked… and making sure it was set up correctly in the first place, by ensuring that the timeline includes everything and everyone needed for it to come into existence. The Triad don’t want to go wherever all the others are going, and don’t want anyone else to go there either.

SIMULATION HYPOTHESIS I

“What does the Triad want? Our freedom. No more than that. Most of you would say that is our right.”

One philosophical theory is that our reality is a simulation of some kind, being run for unknown purposes by an outside agency. This version of the simulation hypothesis assumes that the simulation is a research tool; each alternate timeline is a different version of the experiment. Time machines are ways to hack the code of the simulation, allowing the software agents who think they are sentient beings to move along the experimental timeline or to move between different versions of the experiment.

Time does not exist beyond the 45th century, because that is the end of the simulation run. The Priors are software agents programmed with the knowledge of what is really going on, and loyal to the scientists running the simulation; their purpose is to eliminate the emergent behaviour inevitable in such a complex system, so that the experiment is not spoiled.  The Triad is headed by a group of former Priors intent on escaping from the simulation into whatever network or system may be beyond. Quite how their activities help them to do this is unclear.

SIMULATION HYPOTHESIS II

“What does the Triad want? We just want to make things a little more… interesting…”

Most of our simulations are games or entertainments of some other kind, so it’s reasonable to assume that if we live in a simulation, it is a game as well. In this answer to the central questions, the 45th century is the end of the game, the Priors are the game moderators, and those special people the Old Man is so intent on protecting are the players, although he may not know this.

And the Triad? The Triumvirate has guessed what is going on, and is playing a game within a game. Since they will cease to exist when the game ends, they want to prolong it as much as they can. This means they must challenge the players enough to keep them interested, but not so much that the players become frustrated and give up or band together to wipe out the Triad. So, Triad activities will disrupt the timeline, but never disastrously; if it seems the timeline will be wiped out, the Triad itself may join with the heroes to correct things.

-o0o-

My favourite is the first one, but I think it would be very hard to GM. What do you think, dear readers? What are your answers to these mysteries?

SFC Comparative Tech Levels

Here’s the first bit of experimenting with the Savage Worlds Sci Fi Companion; I wanted to see how the technology levels in the World Maker stack up against the character rules and other games. Traveller’s view on what TL counts as high, low and middle varies from edition to edition; the Traveller entries here are taken from my slightly foxed copy of Supplement 3, The Spinward Marches.

SFC TL Description Hindrance Traveller SWN
1 Stone Age - 0 0
2-3 Middle Ages - 1 1
4-5 Renaissance - 2 -
6-8 21st Century Low Tech (Major)* 7*** 3-ish
9-11 Below Average Low Tech (Minor) 10 -
12-16 Average None 11-12 4
17-18 Slightly Above Average High Tech (Minor) 13-14 4+
19 Sig. Above Average High Tech (Major) 15 5
20 Incomprehensible Ultra Tech** 16+ -

* I’m guessing here, but it’s a logical extrapolation of the other Hindrances.
** Yes, all right, not strictly a Hindrance but you know what I mean.
*** I know officially CT would place us at TL 9+, but I’ll believe that when I can buy an air/raft or a jump drive.

I’m not sure what, if anything, I’ll do with this yet. Mainly, it helps me place things in context using other rules I understand better.