Review: Cepheus Engine SRD

Posted: 19 April 2017 in Reviews

Solo uses the Cepheus Engine. The Zhodani Base speaks highly of it. And so I decided to check it out…

In a Nutshell: Traveller retroclone – old-school style SF RPG. The System Reference Document is a 208 page PDF by Samardan Press Publications released in 2016. Pay What You Want on RPGNow and DriveThruRPG.

The core mechanic is as it was in Classic Traveller: Roll 2d6, apply modifiers (notably a relevant skill level), meet or beat a score of 8 to succeed.


Introduction (9 pages): Overviews of roleplaying in general, the Cepheus Engine itself, common campaign themes, glossary.

Book One: Character Creation (83 pages): This will be familiar to anyone who has played Traveller. You roll 2d6 for each of six characteristics, roll to enter your chosen career, then cycle through various stages of the lifepath, gaining ranks, skills, and material or cash benefits as you go. There are 24 careers (basically the ones from Classic Traveller Book 1 and Supplement 4), and roughly 60 skills. Some items have been renamed, most likely to avoid using terms copyrighted elsewhere.

The Cepheus implementation of this addresses my dislike of the decades-long trend of skills bloat in Traveller; you wind up with roughly two skill levels per term served, and a smattering of skills at level 0, based on your homeworld’s trade codes and your career’s service skills. There are basic rules for gaining new skill levels in play, which explain how long that takes but not what it costs – the GM has to rule on that.

Although humans are as usual the baseline species, there are rules for creating alien races, and a few examples – avians, insectans, reptilians and some human variants: espers and merfolk.

Psionic powers remain an option, with whether they’re available at all, and if so how easy it is to get training, left to the GM. There’s a long equipment chapter with weapons, armour, survival gear, communications and computer gear, drugs, robots and drones, vehicles etc.

Personal combat is focussed on the use of a square grid; unusually compared to most games, but as one might expect for Traveller, the chance of scoring a hit degrades whether you’re long or short of optimal range for the weapon. Whatever damage isn’t absorbed by your armour is temporarily deducted from characteristics, and your status varies with how many of them have been zapped and which ones have reached zero – clunky, but it has worked for decades.

Book Two: Starships and Interstellar Travel (59 pages): How interplanetary and interstellar travel work, building and operating ships, starship combat, interstellar trade, travel on worlds, law enforcement encounters, bribery and punishment for crimes committed (I would’ve covered the legal topics in the next book but it matters little), a goodly number of example ships which are similar, but not identical, to the usual Traveller suspects. Space combat looks a lot more complex than I remember, but I hardly ever use that.

Book Three: Referees (43 pages): The effects of hostile environments, disease, poison, fire and so on; subsector and world generation using familiar Traveller methods; encounters – animals, NPCs, patrons, rumours, starships; rules for creating alien animal life; advice on refereeing the game and creating adventures.

This is following by assorted legal notices.


Colour cover; single-column black text on white, no internal illustrations (this is a System Reference Document, so you’d expect that), lots and lots of tables.


I’d like to see a point-buy character generation option included; this is useful for players with a detailed character concept, and also for play via email, forum or VTT. However, a random method is still useful for new players.

I really don’t like dynamic initiative. It requires me to track both the default initiative score for each character for a given combat as well as the current score as modified by surprise, dodging etc, and remember when it resets to the default. Ain’t nobody got time for dat.


This is an excellent retroclone, which integrates and streamlines parts of several editions of Traveller; I recognised elements of Classic Traveller, Megatraveller and Mongoose Traveller, and there may have been components from other editions which I didn’t recognise – I am an inveterate CT fan and haven’t played that much of the others.

All the topics I would expect are here, in familiar forms but with some well thought out expansions.

I keep thinking about dipping my toe in Traveller waters again, and if I do that, this is the edition I’d use. However, it’s not quite enough to tempt me away from Savage Worlds just yet.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5.

  1. Charles F. Blakely says:

    Actually, Cepheus Engine is most closely related to Mongoose Traveller edition 1. In fact, the Mongoose Traveller edition has a point buy system in it. It could be “translated” to CE quite easily.

    Regarding your comment on “skills bloat”, I give my characters the chance to select specific skills, because I will slaughter them off if they don’t select Vacc Suit at 0, minimum. Let’s see roll 11 or greater on 2D6 for putting a Vacc Suit that you’ve never even been trained with. Yes, that sound is the atmosphere rushing out into space accompanied by cold vacuum. You didn’t roll 11? You’re dead, Jim!

    During the “nostalgic” – read, mentally deleted all the negatives of the game system today – days of the CT, we always commented that we had more skills than our characters had. If you are going to adventure into space, you need to have a certain level of skill. The character who has Drive 1 and Admin 1 isn’t going to last when the laser and gauss guns start firing! And yes, I rolled many such characters and was offered similar useless characters from the CT supplemental books. I always responded by saying, No, then creating another character until something halfway useful came up. Point based creation didn’t show up until after GURPS Traveller.

    Yes, dynamic initiative is difficult to referee. Much like some parry rules in D&D in the past.

    I’m curious, though. What did you see from Megatraveller? I am a fan of the system, refereed it for years, and didn’t notice anything from it, except for the zero level skills.

    I just bought the Vehicle book for CE and look forward to playing with it. I am also looking forward to further supplements. Perhaps you could review the setting These Stars Are Ours! which just came out. Hint, hint!

    Starship combat can be done with 1-2 task rolls with appropriate skill and attribute mods and skip the complexity. If you want a fast combat system.

    The law level has been improved over the years, so at least when the characters get into trouble and get caught, then you have some means of dealing with it. And player characters are always doing unexpected and trouble-producing things in the game!

    Generally, alien creation has improved from the days of CT. Flynn’s Guide To Alien Creation (sic?) has even more extensive rules that are compatible with CE and MgT. I still like to see a filled in name generation table for each alien or better yet a link to a site where a name generation program will spit out a few to a hundred alien names for you.

    Finally, I perceive a big movement away from MgT 2E over to CE, which overall is a good thing. Maybe not so many cool illustrations, but the essentials of the game are there.

    Tempting you to move away from the Savage Worlds system? Yes, feeling better and better about doing so…closing your eyes now…imaging how good it would feel to move away from Savage Worlds…more and more…taking action to do so, now…

    • andyslack says:

      Let’s see… in no particular order:

      I no longer have my MT books so I’m relying on memory. It struck me as unnecessarily complex throughout, as if the authors felt that every idea ever published for the game had to be included; I had the same feeling about 1st edition AD&D. It’s one of those games that I just don’t get, but has a strong following. I’d single out character generation, task resolution and ship design as the parts I found hardest. It came out shortly after I switched from CT to 2300AD, which I was heavily invested in, so I only played a few sessions and maybe didn’t give it enough of a chance.

      I suppose in hindsight, skills bloat actually started in Book 4; the number of skill levels per PC grew, but the number of available skills grew faster, reducing average skill levels, then the number of skill levels per PC increased again…

      Agree with you on the nostalgia; every few years I toy with the idea of running OD&D or CT again, then I reread the rulebooks and quietly put them back on the shelf. Gaming has evolved, and so have my tastes.

      I considered using the point buy system from MgT for Cepheus, or the suggestions in Solo – rearrange characteristics as desired and choose every other skill.

      Move away from Savage Worlds? I was tempted by MgT1 for a while, and I’m not blind to SW’s faults, but it is so much less work for the GM that it would be very hard to shift me now. YMMV.

      I also see a big swing from MgT to CE, which appears to be driven by Mongoose’s licencing conditions, and I admit These Stars Are Ours! is tempting. Bank account needs to regenerate a bit first though, it has taken heavy damage recently.

      Tell me, how do you handle dynamic initiative? Is it necessary to reshuffle turn order several times per round, or are the skill penalties enough of a disincentive?

      • Charles F. Blakely says:

        Well, Dynamic Initiative constantly changes the initiative when players and NPCs React to every attack they possibly can. Yes, a -1 DM is applied to all skill checks. Both the increase in initiative and the skill check the modifiers are cumulative. The real catch to it is that a character can react an unlimited number of times each round, but it creates a constantly changing initiative for the characters that are reacting. And that is a hassle for the DM, IMHO, with all that shuffling. Or not so humble opinion. My experience is that characters will React as often as possible and so will their opponents. I think perhaps allowing characters to react only say their Dex Mod worth of times per round might be a good limit. I have had players that would push the Reactions to the max, even with the ever increasing skill check -1 DM for each time they do so.

        As far as MegaTraveller is concerned, yes, they tried to fuse an awesome task based system with Striker and every supplement they ever published. I personally think the Striker additions could have been removed and just working with the task based system and multiplying damage at a third grade level to compute damage based off the success level of your Attack roll. Easy. Player states what they want to do, GM decides on the Difficulty level, skill and attribute mods, then the player rolls and succeeds or not. I would have liked to have seen the task difficulty numbers go up by twos or threes rather than fours. Speaking with the originators of the task system, Gary Thomas and Joe Fugate at DragonCon one year, they recommended the Referee just create the difficulty levels, skills, and mods on the fly, rather than creating a library of set values that was set in stone.

        I didn’t find MT character generation any harder than any other version of Traveller. In CT we always used High Guard, so MT starship combat was actually easier than HG. Never designed any ships, so I can’t comment there.

        Additionally, MT was the first Traveller game I ever refereed, so it may have seemed easier to me, plus I was able to have many mechanics questions answered from Gary and Joe.

        YMMV applies to skill quantity, as well. I always had a mix of power gamers and roleplayers, so the skills chosen weren’t always weapons – they chose skills in arts, sciences, and communication as well. I tended to cap their weapon skills at level 4 and make it time consuming to increase from there, so everyone wasn’t walking around with the ability of a trained Navy Seal with an ACR. I looked at a particular character sheet and told a GURPS Traveller player to add more skills other than the six that he chose. He chose six more skills, but then he was playing a young teenager, instead of adult.

        Could you request a review copy of These Stars Are Ours!? You are well known in the Traveller community, after all.

        Keep reviewing CE, Traveller editions, and other SF material. I bought some of the Last Parsec material based on your reviews and while I will not use SW, I will use the maps, tables, and adventures re-purposed into the Traveller/CE system. The Solo review was right on! I had missed it on DriveThruRPG when it first came out, so now I have Traveller to play in-between Traveller PBEM! Stars Without Number is also a goldmine of tables and ideas to get unstuck in the game.

  2. Anzon says:

    ahh, so I’m not the only one who thought they’d given everyone a roll in starship combat (Maybe a step forward from CT, where unless you’d got special programs, your piloting or gunnery skill didn’t affect the results at all )

    • andyslack says:

      Looks like it. I can see ship combat actions for the pilot, gunner(s), engineer(s), navigator, captain (using Leadership and/or tactics), comm/sensor operator, mechanic, screen operator and possibly marines repelling boarders. I like the way they can help each other.

      • Tom B says:

        Some time ago, I decided to write a new, more involved version of traveller ship operations using MT’s skill system. I had tasks for comms, for the purser, for the supecargo, and for the pilot, nav, engineer, sensors officer, offensive systems and defensive systems officers, and captain. In smaller ships, you wear more than one hat (and are slightly less effective)

        It covered the sorts of steps taken before departure, starting up the power plant, loading fuel, settling passengers in suites or in low berths, loading, balancing and stowing cargo, securing a departure window) and then things related to liftoff from a planet, calculating courses to jump or other system bodies (efficient courses that save reaction mass), calls to system traffic control or comms traffic to other vessels, then calculating a jump course and transitioning to jump. Scans for other objects in space that are of interest (plus electronic signal scans). Jump arrival, the reverse process of laying in courses to your destination, flying it, calling system traffic control to notify them of arrival and to request a landing clearance, landing on a world (ground or water or loading of shuttles for transport), fuel skimming too. After landing, reviving passengers, debarking passengers, unloading cargo, securing the ship after powering down the reactor. I think I had rules for docking with ships or stations. There were some rules about space fights (though I didn’t bother giving this as much attention as I might as anything more than twice your tonnage and you likely weren’t going to do very much). Rules also for brokering and stock markets and currency exchanges. Customs clearances. Dealing with ornery passengers. Mostly all just example skill checks. Fixing a hole in your vacc suit.

        Why do all this?

        It made how you handled and stowed cargo important (esp with valuable, hazardous or fragile (biohazard, explosive, corrosive, g-sensitive, light sensitive, you name it). It made the position of cargo master an important job. He often was also the broker and trader and the financial and legal officer on the ship.

        It made purser important – he had to deal with getting people through safe. Low berths (so a bit of medic), high passages and mid passages – security, comfort, and emergency procedures and managing passengers during emergencies.

        It made comms and important skill for someone on the ship – to run comms and track all of the deep info during passage through high pop world systems is no mean feat. It made sensors a *critical* skill – see an ambush sooner, pick out specifics that help identify a wolf-in-sheeps clothing, see a weak point or oddity in a ship’s sensor profile.

        Pilot was always good when you were landing on higher G planets, in high winds, in thick atmospheres, on water, in busy local airspace, etc. Nav was good for slightly faster jump and normal space transits and used a bit less fuel.

        The captain contributed tactical and diplomatic/legal skills. Also likely could double every job on the ship at need from his panel.

        Engineers (environmental, power, drive, offensive and defensive systems, electronics/sensors, you name it) are always useful and a small ship engineer has to do all jobs. They also do or at least direct and oversee all damage control which means they have to be able to dance in vacc suits, handle long EVAs, and even used powered exoskeletons sometimes for some damage control tasks (think the combat engineers version of powered armour – lighter armour, lots of radiation shielding, tools instead of weapons, specialized engineering diagnostic system).

        When people question the utility of the MT skill system, with that and *nothing but 2 dice”, I could run a game. Yeah, a few sheets of combat charts might have been useful in combat, but you could almost always identify: task, difficulty, assets (skill or stat), unskilled penalty, hazardous? time involved? and so on while GMing on the fly.

        We didn’t run the full gamut of skill checks every game. I took everyone through it a few times so they understood ship routine and what everyone did. Then periodically I’d make them test one or other aspect. If the supercargo blew a skill check (but didn’t notice – uncertain task), then there might be a cargo-related incident. Engineer made a mistake bringing up the plant, it could take a long time and slow down a delivery. If the purser hadn’t checked out all the passenger’s papers, immigration/visitor checks could be nasty. Everyone’s skills played a roll at one point or another.

        And ship combat involved every one (the cargo master was also often the master of the arms lockers for boarding/counter-boarding actions, the purser was often a retired navy or marine who had to watch the passengers (to see they are safe and not up to hijackings, etc) and who had to wrangle them during boarding actions and ship actions. Comms could pull key info and decrypt it if the enemy was multiship or communicating with someone elsewhere. They could also be key in deception ops.

        My real question not answered in the review:

        If I own CT, MT, GT, T20, T4, T5, MgT 1…. what makes Cepheus a worthwhile addition? If it’s like CT/MgT, what makes it worth re-buying that ruleset?

        Do the extra materials or amendments add up to ‘worth another ruleset’?

      • andyslack says:

        Good question. I think of Cepheus as a retroclone of first edition Mongoose Traveller. As a player or GM, they look much the same, and if you have MgT1 you would probably not benefit much from switching to Cepheus as a player or a GM. As I undertand it, the real advantage is that the licencing terms are better for small indie publishers than Mongoose, so they are switching to Cepheus. The two rules sets are close enough to each other, or CT, that such content is easy to use with any of them.

  3. 2WheelsGood says:

    I can’t help but think some people are rolling too many dice here. If I need to light a signal fire to attract rescuers it doesn’t matter that I didn’t get firefighting skill when I did my one term in the Wet Navy, I’ll tell the ref about my efforts, my collecting dry materials, my sacrifice of a page of notebook, my experiments with dry fungus, splitting wood to increase surface area, jiggering with a laser carbine or popping a bullet head off for the propellant etc.
    It works, or not driving the story forward. If I need to roll then 2468A applies and 2d6 modified by int or edu?
    Traveller and it’s sisters aren’t designed for “I get up and make breakfast” “roll Steward” “then I take my morning jog round the landing field.” “Roll athletics” Then I change that illumination globe in the Starboard crew fresher” “roll engineering or electronics” “before doing the morning newsie crossword” “roll Vilani Xword puzzle skill”…

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