Friday, 1 May 2015

Traveller: Character Gen Report

Our latest RPG adventure

Few role-playing games have the pedigree of Traveller.  First published in 1977, it was one of the first RPGs to follow in the wake of Dungeons and Dragons and considered the first noteworthy science fiction game.  Written around the harder science fiction of the first half of the 20th century, it has remained in print in one version or another ever since then.

Traveller is a game I’ve wanted to run for ages.  I’ve owned the Mongoose Publishing version of the core book for years and while I’ve played in a short sci-fi game and ran a Judge Dredd one-off suing the rules I’ve to run it “ for real” – in the ThirdImperium or a similar interstellar game.  There’s always been another gaming going on and scheduling a short campaign has proven a chore.

However, I’ve finally gotten around to doing so and we’re now three weeks into playing our game.  So here follows a recap of character gen, as experienced by a group of six players of whom only one had any advance Traveller knowledge and were thus mostly sold on playing Traveller as “it’ll be like Elite

Well, Firefly might work better for some people, but it's Elite all the way for me.  Always was an Acorn fanboy...

Traveller character generation is noteworthy for being something of a mini-game.  It’s part of why I didn’t want to run a one-off with pre-gens but specifically a short campaign in which characters are made by the group so we could see that system in action.

Said system unashamedly has a lot of random elements to it.  Although you do get to make choices, there’s a lot of dice rolling and a lot of control has to be handed over to the system, which is not for everyone.  If you arrive with a concrete idea in your head of exactly what you want to play, the system may not play ball and can spit out changes.

Some earlier editions had more extreme changes – the 1977 edition saw characters die in the process, something much discussed (and mocked) even thirty years after it being in the core rules.

Even by 1981 the rules noticed this might not work for everyone, but the meme is too strong to be forgotten.

So, jokes about game systems that are older than me aside, how does modern Traveller character generation work?  How did my group find it?  What setting will I be choosing?

The careers are the root of the game and give out the bulk of your characters skills.  There are twelve core book careers, each of which has three sub-divisions – so an Army characters could choose to specialize in Support, Infantry or Cavalry.  This means a lot of choices even with the core book, and there are a lot of additional choices to be found in supplemental books.

Let’s look at a sample career below.  This is the Scouts, the career for people who want to be space explorers.

From the Mongoose Traveller core rulebook.  All careers follow this model, except some supplements expand the Mishap and Events tables from d6 / 2d6  to 2d6/d66

As you can see, there are a few random tables for Skills and Training: each player gets to choose a category to roll from and do so every “term” (that is, 4 years) and possibly a second time if they are promoted that term.  There are also tables for Events and Mishaps – the former what happens if you stay in a career, the latter what happens if you are kicked out of a career.

The reason you have these two tables is that each careers has dice rolls required for Enlistment, Survival and Advancement.  These are made on 2d6 and bonuses/penalties apply for certain characteristics – so in our example, Survey Scouts are more likely to advance if they have a high Intelligence but all Scouts need a good Endurance to survive the rigors of their job.

Players can choose to leave careers at any time but failed Survival rolls can see them forced out of careers – due to injury, criminal action, budget cutbacks or whatever.  As such, characters tend to have had a couple of different jobs before they finally start play. They also tend to start a lot older than D&D’s stereotypical “18 year old farm hand” adventurers – We ended up with three 34 year olds, two 38 years olds and a 42 year old.  The end result was less Luke Skywalker, more Han Solo

Dog aliens fight it out on the cover of the Vargr race book.

Traveller’s default universe, the Third Imperium, assumes a humanocentric approach and that’s something I wanted to push.  The section of space we’ve chosen is the border between two Human empires, with only two of the thirty one planets therein having sizeable alien populations.  Multiple sub-types of humans may have naturally or artificially evolved differences but at heart this is a game focusing on Homo Sapiens and their kind.

However, people do like to play aliens so I did allow one of Traveller’s major alien races to be present on large worlds in small numbers, an “ethnic minority” if you will.  These aliens are called Vargr and are a humanoid canine-like race – they are descended from uplifted dogs & wolves from Earth.

This is a fairly easy hook to latch on to – most people have an idea of how dogs behave, such as their pack mentality and their strong sense of smell – so both Matthew and Sister Superior chose to play one.  Sister Superior had set her heart on it, truth be told, the moment I mentioned “you can be a Dog alien” and “there’s rules for being a bounty hunter” and put the two together in her head.

I'm the Dog, the Big Bad Dog......

Her plan was to roll up a version of Beth from the reality TV show Dog the Bounty Hunter: a former low-class petty criminal turned perp-hunter, tracking bail-jumpers across the stars.   The others came into the game with minimal plans of what their group would be like so the notion of bounty hunting as a likely end profession popped up in character gen for others – Aaron made his Army/Nobles character to get some appropriate combat skills.

The randomness meant that things don’t go completely to Sister Superior’s plan: her brief foray into criminality didn’t even last a full 4 year term before she was arrested, forced to work community service for a term to stay out of jail.  After that she tried to join a bounty hunting team but failed so spent four years bumming around as a Drifter, living hand to mouth in interstellar slums.  Eventually she did qualify for Bounty Hunter and spent eight years in that career before leaving to start play.

So, on the one hand, there was the risk she would consistently fail to be a Bounty Hunter, and when she failed the first time my heart sank – three terms in and she still couldn’t get the one job she was interested in playing!  Overall, though, it worked out well – she ended up with a history that actually matched her inspiration fairly well, a wasted youth followed by a redeemed adult period.

Deck plan of a typical Far Trader.  The Baroness Grantham is mostly identical but the cargo bay has extra walls in it to create smuggling sections.

At the end of the process we ended up with a mixed bag of six characters, of which we had three ex-scouts and three ex-agents in our midst.  Only Aaron’s Army/Noble was a former military man – unless you count Molly’s single abortive term in the Navy!  The end result is that they aren’t hugely combat-y, but do have a lot of science / investigation / talky skills. 

The character generation process seemed mostly popular with the team who felt it created interesting people to play.  Several came in with a vague idea that went in a different angle than planned but in a way they enjoyed.  Molly’s star-born trader, for example, had her family wiped out by pirates by a random event, tried to join the Navy to avenge them only to get kicked out in a training accident and finally settled into working in the Scouts as a courier.

Pooling their starting resources they managed to get a mortgage on a battered Far Trader, a thirty year old starship called the Baroness Grantham with wonky maneuvering thrusters and secret smuggling compartments.  Yes, that’s right, I said mortgage – Traveller characters have to take work even if it’s morally dubious in order to keep up their mortgage repayments, else their starship gets repossessed.

A map of the Kline sub-sector.  Each hexagon is a single parsec; the Baroness Grantham, with a Jump rating of 2, can travel 2 parsecs without refueling.

The section of space our game is set in is Kline Sub-Sector, a section of space about 50 light years from Earth on the Third Imperium/Solomani border.  While there is a great system for generating your own custom pieces of space, I went on the website and picked what looked a good place for our game to take place in.

I’m not a mega-continuity fan or anything – on the contrary, I’m not huge on campaign settings with vast swathes of background material and meta-plot.  (Forgotten Realms and a three part web article on roofing, I’m looking at you.)  Only Aaron has any real Traveller experience, so no-one is going to start being Canon Police if I set the game in a Quail-original sub sector. 

However, TravellerMap is a great resource for a GM.  It can generate sector and sub-sector maps, and even data sheet for individual pallets breaking down the UWP codes into a handout to give players.

Data-sheet for the planet Kline, capital of the Sub-Sector. I've expanded these numbers to round the planet out - for example, the population live in domed cities connected by a network of grav-coaches.

There are several traditional sandbox settings for Traveller – the Spinward Marches being the main one – but I chose Kline because of what I wanted to focus on.  I wanted a border between the Third Imperium and Solomani Confederation, two powers which are principally human empires but with very different politics and mindsets.  It’s near enough Earth to be well-settled but close enough to a border to have the potential for Cold War excitement.

The Third Imperium, in which our player characters are based and principally grew up in, is a high-tech yet feudal empire.  The Third Imperium is huge but highly decentralized, with each world having substantial autonomy on internal issues.  As long as taxes are paid and military troops appear on request, planets can be democracies or dictatorships or whatever.  Interstellar society is somewhat stratified on social class – high political and military rank is very difficult if you don’t have connections.

The Solomani Confederation is also stratified but on different grounds – race rather than class.  The Solomani are descended directly from the Terrans of Earth and believe that life from Earth is the Master Race and other life forms should know their place.  Social Standing measures the purity of your blood, with cross-breeds forbidden from high office in the Solomani Party and thusly from high society.  That one party is the only major political ideology allowed, no matter how a planet is governed.
Oh Mother Earth, Mother Earth give me the sign
Your children are waiting to hear!
The morning will come when the stars are ours
Tomorrow belongs to me

In short, if the Third Imperium is the Roman Empire or British Empire In Spaaaaace, with client states left to run themselves and chaps in gentlemen’s clubs deciding policy, then the Solomani are Nazi Germany or Stalinist USSR imposing their politics for ideological purity on all in their purview.

The Third Imperium is more alien friendly – the Vargr have populations on most large planets, with one of the six major Arch-Dukes of the Imperium being a Vargr for historical reasons.  The Solomani allow aliens to live in their empire so long as they know their place.

Note that the Solomani aren’t Human Supremacists, but Terran Supremacists.  All those other humans don’t count as the Master Race – the Vilani of the Third Imperium are a lesser species, and Solomani breeding with them are considering polluting Mother Terra’s bloodline.  Animals from Earth, however, are fair game, and uplifted Dolphins are considered loyal Confederation citizens. 

I can’t lie to you, guys, racist Dolphins ruling the seas for Space Nazis are too good to pass up on.

Uplifted to human intelligence but still need robotic arms for fine manipulation.

Into this sandbox come the player characters.  Over three sessions they’ve hunted a bail-jumping drug-dealer, shipped freight across the stars, made a profit on buying and selling commodities between worlds, took on passengers including escaping prostitutes and religious exiles and even found time to blow some money on a day at the races.

We’ll run for another couple of weeks and see what the group makes of the whole thing.  It’s very different to other games I’ve run, being intentionally a sandbox with a lot of random elements that are introduced into play and a great scope for player agency.  It remains to be seen if the group has an interest in that or if they’ll long for something with a tighter narrative

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