Review: Mongoose Traveller 2nd Edition

Posted: 30 September 2017 in Reviews
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“This is my family. I found it all on my own. It’s little, and broken, but still good. Yeah – still good.” – Lilo and Stitch.

In a Nutshell: Second edition of Mongoose Traveller, 240 page hardback. Still channelling Classic Traveller. Some bits you might expect are missing, but it’s still good. £24 on Amazon, RPGNow PDF version a tiny bit cheaper.

CONTENTS

Introduction (5 pages): There’s not much about what a roleplaying game is; that section is no longer necessary, because your mom plays RPGs on her tablet now. It does touch on the default setting – the Third Imperium – and campaign types: Free traders, mercs, explorers, travellers (a little bit of all the others). It plugs other books in the line and explains game conventions. It lists tech levels. It expands on the usual Rule Zero (“what the GM says trumps what the rulebook says”) by reminding GMs that they can overrule random results (such as random encounters) if this will improve the story.

Traveller Creation (49 pages): It’s all about the player characters; you’d expect that in a roleplaying game. The basic lifepath sequences will be familiar to anyone who has played Classic Traveller, MegaTraveller or Mongoose Traveller first edition; generate six characteristics, join a career (there are 12, plus the chance to go to jail, and an event that can switch you onto the psionic track), work around a cycle of survival, commission/promotion (sorry, advancement), re-enlistment until you have what you want or get invalided out, roll for benefits and so on. Unlike early versions of the game, you also generate mishaps and events as you go; these may result in acquiring NPC friends or foes, or (if you can link them to other PCs) extra skills; the assumption is that the group generate characters together, allowing for these links and also for skills package selection – the group as a whole selects one skills package suitable for the chosen campaign type, and individual characters select skills from it in turn, ensuring that between them, the PCs have suitable skills for the campaign.

Three playable races are included: Humans (the default), aslan (samurai cat people), and vargr (piratical canines). This chapter also includes the rules for character advancement; study a skill for a set number of weeks, make a characteristic check, increase your skill level if you succeed.

Skills and Tasks (14 pages): Tasks are basically skill checks; roll 2d6, and skill level and characteristice modifier, meet or beat a target number to succeed. Boons and banes look new to me; like D&D advantage and disadvantage, these mean you roll an extra die and take either the best two (boon) or the worst two (bane) – they are applied for circumstances such as dim lighting or unusually good tools. Sometimes how much you succeed or fail by matters, sometimes it doesn’t.

There are about 40 skills, many of which have multiple specialities. If the skill has at least two possible specialities, level 0 in the main skill gives you level-0 in all specialities, and you advance them separately after that. Another way to look at this is that expertise in some skills gives you basic knowledge in a group of closely related skills. This is a viable but somewhat sneaky way of getting another 70-80 skills into character generation – but at least you avoid the untrained penalties for a lot of them.

Combat (6 pages): This can be relatively short because it’s resolved as a series of tasks. I am delighted to see that dynamic initiative has been disposed of, since that was the single biggest thing stopping me playing Mongoose Traveller or the Cepheus Engine, but you still need to track the number of dodges/parries each PC or NPC makes, as that is a direct modifier on all their rolls for that round. Tactics – which I’m used to thinking of as a roving modifier – now boosts allied initiative. The combat round is the usual initiative, move, act, roll to hit, roll for damage; if you have ever played Traveller, you’ll be right at home. Damage directly reduces physical characteristics; unlike Classic Traveller, you need two of those reduced to zero to knock someone out, but the third zeroed characteristic kills them.

Encounters and Dangers (15 pages): The usual suspects here; disease, poison, falling off things, radiation, suffocation, hostile environments. Then come the healing rules, followed by encounters, rules for creating animals (and half a dozen examples), random person and patron encounters, missions, and so forth. The animal generation rules are the simplest I’ve seen in any edition of Traveller, but they look like they would do the job. The random encounter and mission tables are, I think, my favourite part of the book – very well done.

Equipment (39 pages): Tons of equipment, much of it weapons and armour; you’d expect that in a science fiction RPG. The publishers have tried to do this as a sort of combination magazine and catalogue; I would prefer something more straightforward, but at least it gives you a picture of everything. Armour is much as it has always been, with the exception of Battle Dress, which now has lots of modular add-ons. Next come augments – cybernetic implants, mostly focused on improving characteristics. Then we get sections on communications, computers and software, medical gear and drugs, sensors, survival gear; melee and ranged weapons, grenades, explosives, heavy weapons, weapon options. Again, if you’re played Traveller before, you will recognise them all, and if you’re a grognard like me, you’ll think of the weapons in particular as Book 1 plus Book 4 personal and squad support weapons.

Vehicles (12 pages): Vehicular combat rules, optional extras, and half a dozen example vehicles. No design sequence – I expect that will come in a later book. The rules are an extension of personal combat, adding critical hit tables but otherwise broadly similar.

Spacecraft Operations (12 pages): How your ship is operated, how much that costs, what you might meet in space, typical travel times, that kind of thing.

Space Combat (10 pages): This has longer combat rounds and a different turn sequence than personal or vehicle combat, but it is still resolved using initiative, skills and tasks. This chapter limits itself to the standard turret weapons (lasers, missiles, sandcasters) and does not introduce military-grade weapons such as particle accelerators and meson guns – I assume they follow in a later book. The authors have tried hard to give all the bridge crew a useful role in combat; without playing it, my gut feeling is that they’ve expanded the fun roles from pilot and gunner to include engineer, but I’m not sure that sensor ops or marines will enjoy space combat much. Passengers, sitting patiently in their staterooms, can only wait for it to be over.

Interestingly, if spacecraft close to within 10 km of each other, they shift into a dogfight mode, effectively a modified form of personal combat. This intrigues me, and I don’t remember it from any previous version of Traveller, but I’m not sure I’ve understood it properly – an example would be useful.

Closer still, within a thousand metres, and boarding actions can occur. There’s an abstract system for this, and the option to shift into personal combat on deck plans depending on the outcome of the abstract dice rolls.

Common Spacecraft (32 pages): Here we find stats and deck plans for the sort of ships Travellers might encounter, or hope to acquire; all the usual suspects – for grognards, types A, A2, C, J, K, L, M, R, S, T, Y, and the small craft that have been standard since 1981. The deck plans are an isometric view, which I dislike because I find the more traditional top-down plans easier to read and to use; however, they are more legible than the ones in first edition, and I approve of that.

Psionics (10 pages): The expected five psionic talents; telepathy, clairvoyance, telekinesis, awareness, teleportation. In line with the skill and task system elsewhere, each of these is a skill, and the various powers are tasks with variable difficulties – life detection is an easy task (4+ to succeed), while psionic assault is formidable (14+). There are drugs to enhance or suppress your powers, psionic shielding to protect you from psions, and a teleport suit which rapidly warms or cools you to reduce damage from the sudden changes in temperature caused by vertical teleportation. Hidden away at the back of the chapter is the 14th career, psion, which you can only access if you roll a suitable event in your normal career.

Trade (8 pages): While Starship Operations and Space Combat focus on what it costs to run a ship, this section is about how ships make money, by transporting freight or passengers, and perhaps indulging in speculative trading – buying goods on a planet where they are cheap, and selling them where they are expensive. It has a suggestion I haven’t tried in all the years I’ve run Traveller, namely to give the players the Trade chapter and a subsector map, and let them get on with it while the GM prepares for the next scene. That bears thinking about.

World and Universe Creation (16 pages): This hasn’t changed a lot since 1977, but then it does the job and does it well, so there’s no need for change. Roll to see which of the 80 hexes in a subsector have worlds present, roll for each world’s starport type, size, atmosphere, hydrographics, population, government, law level, tech level, and other features such as bases; some of these affect others. In this edition, there are rules for factions within a government, and what the penalties are for breaching the law level. As usual, there are travel codes (how safe is it) and trade codes (dependent on the world stats, and influencing the price of goods there).

The Sindal Subsector (10 pages): It’s a Traveller subsector, following the Zhodani Base’s advice to have lots of lawless backwater worlds sandwiched between two large offmap powers (the Third Imperium and the Aslan). I do like the extra page showing where it is in the sector (Trojan Reach, immediately rimward of the Spinward Marches), Known Space, and Milky Way Galaxy – nice touch, and good use of colour. Each of the 18 worlds has stats, a brief description, an a patron with a mission for the Travellers.

And that’s it. No ship or vehicle design rules, no character sheet, no blank subsector map, no index. None of those are things I use much anyway, so I’m cool with that.

FORMAT

Two column black text on patterned grey background, full colour pictures every few pages, glossy paper. From a visual perspective alone, this is a big improvement on the first edition. It remains to be seen whether Mongoose has figured out how to do PDF files yet, I am reluctant to buy the PDF rulebook to find out after the issues I had with earlier products, most notably the quickstart rules.

The book doesn’t use the so-called perfect binding method (far from perfect if you ask me), but I’m not sure how well the stitching would hold up under heavy use.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I would like a point-buy option for character creation. I didn’t notice one as I read through, but maybe I missed it.

If space encounters in bold cannot be ignored, it would be useful if some of them were in bold text (pages 145-146).

Ship deck plans in a more traditional format please, isometric ones don’t appeal to me.

CONCLUSIONS

You could pick this up, generate characters, and start playing in the Sindal subsector right away, whereas with previous editions you’d have to have either bought or generated a subsector as well.

The rules system is an improvement on the first edition, especially the removal of dynamic initiative (huzzah!). I suspect that there is some skills bloat compared to Classic Traveller, as each PC is going to have 3-4 extra skills from connections and the group’s package; but to an extent this is mandated by the 120+ skills and specialisations available.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5. It’s good, but I’m a Savage now. Maybe someday I’ll come back to Traveller proper, and if so, I could do a lot worse than this. But not today.

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Comments
  1. Ian says:

    Well 1e had a point buy system as an option.

  2. SJB says:

    Thank you for the review. I think your readers accept that you will never go back to Traveller! I for one am looking forward to Tuco’s Guide to Savage Worlds in the Dark Nebula. I’ve read a bossy and bloated SW rulebook that seems to suggest that one has to play with a clunky combination of dice-playing cards-miniatures-poker chips. Your blog describes a lo-drag, lo-prep game of near genius.

    • andyslack says:

      You’re welcome. Maybe I just feel guilty about not dancin’ with who brung me.

      Bossy and bloated? Well, there are certainly a few things that SW could drop without causing me grief, but the core rules are small; you can run games just with the test drive (12 pages if you ignore the pregens and starter scenario). It’s hard to play without dice, but you don’t need the other stuff. Cards can be replaced with dice and a little thought (that was an official rules variant at one point). SW doesn’t need minis any more than other RPGs, and you can easily replace poker chips with pencil marks on the character sheet or pips on an extra d6 per player.

      Tuco’s Guide eh? I like that, I’m tempted to borrow it. Hope you enjoy the writeups when they appear (maybe 3-4 weeks). I’m definitely aiming for low drag and low prep across the board now.

      • SJB says:

        Tuco’s Guide is your existing ©: I was merely riffing. Possibly I was being a little unfair to Savage Worlds. The Deluxe version is 161 pp. as compared to 240 pp for the rules under review. The RAW do begin by stating they are designed for miniatures, go on to explain that the Action Deck is now the sole means of deciding initiative and try to sell you Benny chips. Yes, it would be easy to hack for someone with multiple systems mastery – and I’m looking forward to the write ups. The frustration is that I can see other people having a great time doing those hacks, understand that the attraction of being able to do things quickly and easily, but can’t see how to do it myself without a shed load of effort. The LBBs were rebarbative to begin with but a bloke wrote some brilliant exegetical articles in White Dwarf and everyone in the UK of a certain age has spoken fluent Traveller for decades as a result.

      • andyslack says:

        You’re too kind, thank you. 🙂

        SW happens to suit me, but to paraphrase Zak S, RPGs are like sandwiches, people like different kinds. The RAW do say they’re designed for minis, but SWD also says minis are not essential. They do try to sell you add-ons, but then most RPGs do – though I think the SWD rules overdo it a little with nine pages of adverts for settings, the previous edition limited itself to one. It took me several read-throughs and experimental sessions over a period of about a year before I felt comfortable with the SW rules, if that’s any consolation; the rulebook is basically like “listen very carefully, I shall say this only once,” so I had to internalise quite a bit of it before I felt confident with it.

        The official card-free rule was to use a d12 per player instead of drawing cards, with a 12 counting as a joker. Some people use d20s instead. Cards are supposed to be faster, though I haven’t found that to be the case. The probabilities are somewhat skewed, and that is made worse by the fact that dice have no memory but card decks do, after a fashion; I haven’t noticed that making a difference in play, either, partly because SW probability curves are unusual to start with.

        Hmm, I can feel a post about SW hacks coming on…

  3. MongTrav, in play, is as light as any game you want. It’s lighter than Savage with minis. Where it can be much slower is starship combat, but that can be made into a proecdural minigame, once the group are comfortable with the flow and one can then roleplay in the spaces between laser strikes or manouevres. I like Savage combat a lot. I like the leaner approach to space combat, more like D6. However, like Andy, I could mix and move a lot of this stuff between either system so easily, they’re both very modular. If you forced me.. I’d say Savage is the slightly more complex system on the table, and Traveller allows one to be quite complicated away from the table IF that’s your bag.
    Andy.. do you use minis and maps at the table with Savage?

    • andyslack says:

      Sometimes; it depends on the group, the scenario and whether I remembered to take them with me – the main factor seems to be which group is playing. Collateral Damage and Shadows of Keron are usually no maps, no minis, but some sessions have used either minis without maps or maps without minis (which worked surprisingly well). Pawns of Destiny and Hearts of Stone are usually maps and minis for combat, but not otherwise. In solitaire play I no longer use maps or minis, since the GM emulators I use now don’t require them.

      • I have increasingly enjoyed minis, whereas I didn’t as a youngster. This is somewhat tied up with how well Savage copes with multiple figures on each side. However when I run Trav, it’s usually online and I keep it Theatre of the Mind but with a scribbled white board map.

  4. Dom Mooney says:

    Dogfighting is broken.

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