Wednesday, April 5, 2017

I've Probably Peaked

My previous post about Marc Miller and Traveller has garnered more views than anything else I've ever posted here (and possibly anything I've ever posted anywhere). I'd love to follow it up immediately to reward the attention of the many fine and wonderful people who've newly stopped by Trollbones [in other words, capitalize on the audience building], but I'm a bit busy heading off to another gaming con' this weekend, Forge Midwest (amusingly like last week's Gary Con, also in Wisconsin) so I won't have time to put together another detailed post for a while.

I guess the glory of Milwaukee keeps calling to me.
Source: olsonj

But I do have some interesting stuff planned for when I can next get back for a long sit at the keyboard:

  • Similar to the Marc Miller post, notes from Jeff Dee, who also offered a Q&A seminar at Gary Con IX, and also refereed a game I had the fortune of attending.
  • Comparisons of my recent experiences playing several different superhero RPG's: Hideouts & Hoodlums, Savage Worlds, Marvel Super Heroes and Villains & Vigilantes 3rd edition. 
  • A retrospective on TWERPS, "The World's Easiest Roleplaying System" of the 90's, my happy experiences with it and what I've recently learned about it's history. 
  • A critical review of Stars Without Number, how it's played for me, why I like it, what I think its flaws are and what I'd like to see change for its upcoming 2nd edition.
  • Heads You Win, a satirical yet totally playable role-play rule system that fits complete on a single 4" x 6" note-card.
  • Maaayyybe finally getting back to that comparison of XP systems I started last month.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Mr. Miller's Remarks

Image originally posted by catsonkeyboards

Friday morning at Gary Con IX, I attended a seminar hosted by Marc Miller, lead creator of Traveller. It turned out to be a modest affair, fewer than ten people, so Marc had us all pull in close and provided rare opportunity to ask him direct questions. In particular, since I've been reading the "Out of the Box" series on Tales to Astound, I was curious about the evolution of Traveller from a generic sandbox generator to a game specifically about the Third Imperium setting, and was able to put the matter to him directly a couple times.

Naturally, Marc mainly wanted to promote his current work, Traveller5, particularly a basic beginner-friendly version he'd like to produce, but he was still willing to share his memories of the old days.

I suspect some of these anecdotes are familiar to folks who've heard Marc talk about Traveller before; I certainly recognized some of his words as near-verbatim repeats of old essays of his. I'm no journalist, I was merely jotting down long-hand interesting discourse as it came up, so mostly these are the highlights of the talk organized roughly by subject, not by Q-and-A or chronologically, and quotes below should be taken as paraphrasing.

Creating Traveller

Marc Miller's inspirational reading was a stack of old coverless pulp magazines. As a young graduate he'd buy them one at a time from a local newstand when he couldn't afford any other entertainment.

The organization of the LBB's directly emulated original white-box D&D. "I'd finish a chapter then flip through the D&D booklets to see what part I should write next."

The distinctive minimalist visual style of the original set came about largely because the graphic designer (Paul R. Banner, I assume) didn't want to spend much time on it, as they were more interested in another GDW project they were responsible for, the wargame Europa.

The iconic imperial sunburst was another example of graphic expedience; it was copied from the wargame Iliad: the Siege of Troy where it had represented the god Apollo.

Though the popularity of D&D was undeniable, the potential for a wider field of role-playing games was unproven, so GDW pursued their science fiction game with guarded ambitions. Traveller was an unexpected success. "We hoped it would sell 2,000 copies, then we reached 10,000."

Growth and Development

The core game wasn't designed with expansion in mind, so its systems are largely self-contained. But when its popularity presented a market for adventures, GDW felt a structured setting was needed to give those adventures context, thus the Imperium was developed. [I wish I'd time to pursue Miller further about this process, particularly why he felt published adventures required a large-scale inter-connected setting rather than self-contained scenarios.] 

There was early resistance to the expansion of Traveller past the core game. Marc particularly remembers game reviewer Louis Pulver(?) complaining "I won't play a game the tells me what to do," when official setting material started to appear. 

Buyers demand expansions they'll never use, so designing for the market is not the same thing as designing for actual play. "They want thirty pages of combat rules, but will never run more than a brawl using five of them."

Traveller: 2300 / 2300AD was originally conceived as Traveller's replacement. Miller and GDW assumed interest in the original game would wane with age, losing it's market. 2300 was their take on modernized space adventure role-playing for a contemporary audience.

Opinions and Insights

Things got a little fraught when discussion turned to modern SF literature and Marc's opinions of such. He talked about sampling current works, but still prefers straightforward action-and-engineering tales to esoteric socially-focused stories. The tension came when he openly referred to authors of award-winning stories that lacked ray-guns and spaceships as "social justice warriors" and some of the audience reacted negatively (me included) to the disparaging implication, to his mild surprise. He pointed out that he's proud to have broached non-binary gender in his latest Traveller novel, but the way he discussed it indicates he still feels that's a subject best dealt with obliquely. My interpretation of the whole uncomfortable exchange was that Marc Miller didn't mean "SJW" with the full vehemence that gutter-scum like the Sad Puppies and GamerGaters do, and probably wasn't fully aware of that context. He sees himself as liberal-minded, but it's in an old-hand way, "a little edgy."

Marc was refreshingly frank about parts of Traveller's publishing history that misfired. He dismissed High Guard for its long statline that was too unwieldy to actually use, and says outright that Fire Fusion and Steel "didn't work."

I directly asked him for his reaction to players going back to a "three LBB's only" approach, who feel that the Third Imperium and its expectations make for a very different game than Traveller originally was. More or less, he shrugged and said it's fine if people want to do that, but he likes writing about the Imperium so it will continue to be part of his vision of Traveller.

Never did successful roll up a character with a Type S Scout. Source.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Paper & Pencils

Hey, let's talk stationary!

I'm still a analog thinker, so I prefer developing ideas with pencil-on-paper, especially gaming ideas. However, I have spent years trying to find a style of notebook that didn't frustrate me somehow. Partly this was because I'm left-handed thus traditional formats are a struggle to handle, but also I wanted something that was malleable yet durable, portable yet large enough to hold a couple full paragraphs per page and economical without being shoddy. The usual string of contradictions, I suppose.

Turns out the best solution (so far) is a prosaic one: 5" x 8" junior legal pads, specifically Professional Junior style with double-thick backboards (and a self-contrary label of great amusement).
My preferred brand.

Someday I'll splurge on the fancy colors.

I think these things are great, avoiding all the hassles I've had with binders, journals, disc-spines and whatever. First, with the binding on top my crocked writing hand isn't always bumping into a spine. They're small enough I can fit them into the side-pocket of any shoulder bag and also pop them in a ziplock to waterproof them. I can easily rip out pages when I need a scratch sheet or want to yank out ideas for development, yet I haven't had any problem with pages falling off (yet). A single page is big enough to hold a character, location or even a succinct scenario but small enough I can brainstorm at a train station or in a lobby.

A fun side effect is that, since they come in cheap packs of eight or more, I've taken to just jumping to a new pad when I start to develop a new large concept like a whole game or campaign. After the initial burst of brainstorming I leave the pad on my home desk and, if I have later ideas, I rip them out of my current notepad and put them under the previous brainstorming pad, a nice process of simple organization. Also, it's finally gotten me in the habit of regularly harvesting notes from my carry bag so I'm not going to misplace them again to a another lost or stolen bag.

The tools in action.

My only complaint is that I'd prefer graph grids so I could make maps easier, but Professional Junior Legals pads are only conveniently available in lined format. Grid pads do exist, but they aren't stocked in local stores and as far as I found don't have the double-thick backing.


If you're curious about my preferred writing implement, it's a mechanical pencil using 1.3mm lead, specifically an over-sized Paper Mate model with a triangular profile. Cheap but durable and refillable. Really easy to grip, doesn't cramp my hand, the sturdy lead doesn't break and it literally forces me to think in broad strokes.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Volcano Kings of Antarctica

The ancient Earth is drowning in the frozen cosmic night, its once staid orbit radically precessed by a long forgotten interplanetary mischance. The last refuge of mankind is a twilight continent grasping at feeble rays from a mortally wounded sun. All else of the old globe is blasted and entombed in shadow and ice, haunted by mad monsters, remnants of interstellar infestations. But upon the auster pole, enough warmth still falls from the erratically reeling sun to let water flow, and upon this sparse foothold the Volcano Kings have built their stalwart realms. Masters of primordial geo-sorcerous power, the Kings were able to draw up energy from the utter depths to warm their lands, build their cities and drive back the freezing monstrosities. Of course, their rule is not harmonious, as the Kings each hold their realm jealously and crave to add all the others to their own. Barbarian tribes prowl the frontier, calling up inhuman spirits to pursue war amongst themselves and boiling forth to raid the volcano-cities. Within those lava-illuminated city walls it is no more tranquil, as the noble-minded, the ambitious and the merely greedy (and more than few of the outright mad) all maneuver against each other, hoping to seize advantage in this last bastion of humanity.  And from the outermost dark the cold monsters still come, with ever growing boldness savaging and slaughtering, and plotting with what some see as a distressingly developing intelligence.

Volcano Castle by JamesHillGallery, Devinat Art
I was skimming through GORE last night, a open source iteration of "Basic Role Playing," wondering what use the rules could be put towards, when the above campaign context took fast form in my mind. I can see myself putting together a 40 to 60 page text out of this with a slimmed-down version of GORE as the rules base, a fun little sword & sorcery setting in the "dying earth" milieu.

The title "Volcano Kings of Antarctica" has actually been sitting around in my idea bin for a while.

My initial version was more pulpy, set in the 1920's in a jungle cavern-world beneath the polar continent, populated by Lemurians (the titular Volcano Kings) sealed off from the outside world since prehistoric times and with giant insects filling all the ecological niches. The starting point would be a contemporary university expedition literally dropped into this setting, only to discover the harsh-but-stable society of the ancients in an uproar due to a WWI German submarine and its crew who had been similarly drop-punted into the troglodyte lands half-a-decade or so earlier. The Germans, led by their sinister scarred and be-monocled Captain have used their technical expertise to ally with the cruelest Volcano King, pushing for war so they can seize the secrets of the miraculous volcano-science from all the other Volcano Kings and then use it to return to the outside world ... and conquer it all! 

I had some notion of a subtext of tension between innovation/discovery used for tribalism versus the general betterment of humanity, but mainly it was a blood-and-spectacle Pellucidar-pastiche allowing for a variety of characters in a sandbox-style campaign (I'd never specify how many people are in the initial expedition, and set up the initial entrance point as the "base town"). I was looking towards a hack of OD&D/S&W White Box to run it.

Honestly, I still think the pulp version of VKoA is more unique, but I didn't manifest the enthusiasm to develop it like I have for the S&S version. I suspect largely because settings feel more limiting the closer they get to chronicled history, even if they're off  in a Lost World. I just feel an obligation to make a token effort to acknowledge historical facts ("this character is a veteran of the Ottoman campaign ... what battles would he have likely experienced, what languages would he have been exposed to?") and that's, well, effort rather than fun. Likewise, with the German engineering as a central theme, I'd feel the obligation to make my descriptions of geothermal plants and steel mills at least passably realistic, something I don't have to worry about when I get to focus more on mood and invention.

Oh, my opinion on GORE? Mixed at best. The Chaosium house system has never been my first choice (I tried hard to get into Elric! back in the 90's but it didn't take, and my experiences with Call of Cthulhu and Runequest have always been frustrating). And GORE itself is terribly organized; for instance, rules necessary for character creation and combat are spread throughout the text, despite both those subjects having chapters dedicated to them. So as a game unto itself, I wouldn't recommend it. However, as an open source repository it has utility, since all that data can be easily remixed and expanded to suit one's purposes, and BRP is a thoroughly tested role play system. I can remove out all the modern-day rules, aggressively reorganize the remaining parts then add on new setting-appropriate systems and Volcano Kings of Antarctica would be a game anyone with any sort of Chaosium experience would recognize. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A Couple Ideas for Alternate uses of XP

Still musing about Experience Points since my last post, here's a couple ideas I've had for supplemental ways to use them in Swords & Wizardry and other OSR games.

Magic Item Creation

This is actually a misapprehension turned around into a functioning mechanic. Back in the old days, though my rulebooks were BECMI D&D, I still picked up a lot of AD&D supplements because I was eager for material and there was so much more of the AD&D stuff available. Mostly I ignored the minor stat differences, but when enigmas like "non-weapon proficiences" and "3/2" attacks with no precedent in BECMI got in the way, I just made a wild guess. This included the XP values listed for magic items, which for some reason I surmised were costs players had to pay for wielding the items ("You're taking the sword +1? Alright Jerry, subtract 400 XP from your sheet") rather than a reward for finding it amongst monetary treasure (I suspect due to my notion that AD&D was "advanced" because it harshly penalized characters for every advantage).

Actually, this makes sense if applied to magic-users creating those magic items. In addition to spending time and gold, they need to give up a portion of their essence to give the item power, represented by the XP cost. I'd just use the XP values from AD&D (yes I did finally get those rulebooks) maybe doubled or tripled. Also, I'd limit PC magic-users to the creation of one durable magic item per class level, to avoid them spamming out bushels of +1 daggers rather than ever leveling up. They can still create as many potions and scrolls as they can afford, with no XP cost.

Raising Attributes

 I'll have more to say about Earthdawn's sharply eccentric advancement system and how it compares to old-school D&D, but for now I'd like to swipe it's XP-for-attribute-raises mechanic. The unchanging nature of attributes in old-school D&D occasionally perturbs me, so it's an easy fix to let players impede their long-term "skill" gains via levels for the short-term benefits of attributes. Eyeballing it, I'd rule that, once every class level, a character can raise an attribute of their choice one point for the cost of 500 xp per point of the new attribute rating; going from Strength 8 to Strength 9 would thus set the character back 4,500 XP. I like that this gives the player a way out of being stuck with a attribute forever on the cusp of a modifier threshold, though I imagine it opens up an exploit if the GM is offering XP bonuses for high attributes (I don't). 

And now to prevent this post from just being a wall of text, here's a picture of a stolid ranger by Caitlyn Kurilich, who looks like they've advanced a few levels:

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Comparing XP Awards

The Experience Point economy is, for me, one of the foundational aspects of Old School play. I'm far more likely to tinker with how XP is generated, consumed and flows than I am, say, the combat or magic systems. I'd even profess that most of the traditional parts of Old School design can be dropped, but as long as the XP system remains it still "counts" as old-school gaming. Well, that and reaction rolls, random encounters and morale ... basically, the real meat of play are those core systems generating interesting situations; combat is just a detail of negotiating the results.

But that's all to be hashed over more thoroughly another time. For now, I've been comparing formula for Swords & Wizardry, my preferred retro-clone (specifically White Box). Look, I even made charts!

The official "Rules as Written" S&W XP scale cumulatively gives more XP per hit die from foes with greater total hit dice. For example, an Orc's lone hit die is worth 15 XP, while each of a Warg's 4 HD is worth 30 XP, for a total of 120. Though it has a broad pattern it's an arbitrary scale without formula, simply bumping up the amount of XP gained per HD at inconsistent points by inconsistent amounts (it even dips down once at the 16 HD spot). It's a perfectly adequate emulation of the traditional scales from BXD&D and AD&D, that shrewdly cuts the fiddly additional "special ability bonus" and "XP per hit point" parts of those original systems (The RaW system simply counts special abilities as extra HD). But I find its arbitrariness cumbersome, slowing down bookkeeping as I have to look up each foe's XP value individually.

A common alternate method, derived from the original 1974 D&D rules, is to just give a flat 100 XP per HD of defeated foe. It requires no chart look-up, and many GM's like it because it gives low-level characters a comparatively big boost while throttling back the advancement of higher level characters. I dislike it because I think it makes minor monsters so valuable (a mere score of orcs is worth more than most dragons on the RaW scale) that it'll encourage characters to stick to hunting unchallenging rabble and minions after they should be powerful enough to take on bigger targets.

The third method on the chart, "HD² x 10," is a formula I came up with when running Stars Without Number, a game which has a very broad approach to XP rewards and no specific scale for foes defeated, something I found a bit too loose. I've since come to like it enough to port it over into other OSR games because it produces awards passingly close to the original scales (well ... it evens out in the long run) and since it's a consistent formula I don't need a chart to calculate awards. The only quibble (a minor one, but it might annoy some) is the numbers generated can scan as somewhat inelegant, such 810 XP for a 9 HD monster, or 1,690 for a 13 HD beast.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Boiling Down Traveller: Really, Really Simple Worlds

Microlite20 is pretty amazing. Back during the heyday of D&D's 3rd edition, Robin V. Stacey accepted the permissions granted by the Open Game License to flense the D20 System Reference Document, pitilessly cutting away every bit of adornment until all that was left was the absolute naked minimum needed to play a game that was still recognizably D20-style D&D. M20 is cross-compatible with existing D20 resources, but is playable on it's own. Just two pages long in it's base form, even when expanded with plenty of added resources it's still under twenty pages. Scores of people took to M20, running it, expanding it and writing there own microlite games in turn.

So ... how about a Microlite take on Traveller, the classic game of science fiction adventure in the far future? I got this notion when looking through my venerable copy of The Traveller Book and realizing that despite the myriad rules and formula filling it's pages, there's explicitly a core list of clearly defined activities play is built around:

  • Character Generation
  • Personal Combat
  • Starship Design
  • Starship Operations
  • Starship Combat
  • Interstellar Trade
  • World Generation
  • World Exploration
  • Encounters (with subtypes of Social, Animal and Starship)
  • Psionics
Taking the original Traveller text as inspiration (without aiming to emulate it precisely) I can imagine writing a game where each of those activities is covered adequately by just one page of efficient guidelines. Budget in a couple extra pages for miscellaneous subjects like equipment, and that's a nice even total of a dozen pages, well within the succinct range of microlite systems. It won't be as comprehensive as full Traveller, but it'll support a recognizably Traveller-like play experience. Also, unlike Microlite20, cross-compatibility isn't a strong design goal, since Traveller doesn't have the same focus of meticulous character-builds, magic-item interactions and monster-abilities.

To give an idea what my take on this would look like, I doodled out the following terse system for generating worlds. Reviewing the UWP-generating process of original Traveller, I've tightened the focus down to the essentials needed to define a world, and tried to combine several different values into one (for instance, pushing atmosphere, size and hydrosphere all together into "Environment"):
  • A sector is a 6x6 grid. Check each coordinate on the grid by throwing a die. An a result of 5 or 6, note a world at that location.
  • For each world, throw a die and subtract 1 to get a value of 0-5* for each of the following qualities: Development, Stability, Environment and Resources. The higher the result, the better.
  • Development describes how heavily populated and technologically advanced the world is. 0 indicates no native population or industry, 5 indicates a thriving world with a sprawling starport and cutting edge technology.
  • Stability describes the presence of strife and social development. 0 indicates ongoing total warfare, 5 indicates a peaceful and equitable society.
  • Environment describes how hospitable the planetary surface is. 0 indicates a world that's too hostile even to survive in a vacc suit, 5 indicates a hospitable Earth-equivalent biosphere.
  • Resources describe how much surplus raw materials or valuable finished goods this world produces for the interstellar market. 0 indicates no surplus and a likely strong need for imports, 5 indicates a vast surplus and ample buyer opportunities.
  • Check each world for unusual circumstances by throwing a die. On a result of 5 or 6, throw another die, apply the result from this list and interpret what it means: 1 Aliens, 2 Artifacts, 3 Imperial Base, 4 Interdicted, 5 Guild Base, 6 Anomaly.
*The four qualities come out as 0-5 because I've some notion of using them as die modifiers for other systems.

I'm not promising I'll see this through, I'm notorious for conceiving projects that don't go anywhere, but it's still a compelling idea I'd like brought to fruition.