Friday, August 6, 2010

Pluses and Minuses

Life's been something of a roller-coaster.  On the plus side:

  • Madison Traditional Gaming has gotten rather successful.  We will be celebrating our one year anniversary in September, with a special Meetup.  There might even be door prizes!
  • My Tuesday Night OD&D game is going well; I have six regular players and that seems to be about the right size.  The Big Switch to Aldwyr is planned for later in September.
  • Work on the Tekumel Foundation continues apace, with some interesting projects in the works.
  • And besides gaming, an offer of work at Madison College this fall.  Adjunct, but that's okay.
On the minus side, however:
  • Could not afford to go to Gen Con.  Too many auto repairs and unforeseen living expenses.
  • TARGA remains inactive.  Simply have not had time to focus on it, and with a lack of enthusiasm on the part of others, it's likely to stay as it is for now.
  • Haven't had time to get to various creative projects, including but not limited to: The Wilderness Architect, Microlite Post-Apocalypse, Wanderer, a supplement for X-plorers, and an OD&D-kinda-sorta parallel for spies and modern adventure.
  • Besides gaming, have had a very close friend in hospital for the past week, who needed my support.  Fortunately, he's getting out today.
 Think I'm busy.  Oh, right!  I have a blog, too! ;)

Thursday, June 3, 2010

A Miscellany of Events

There have been a miscellany of events taking place, in-game and out-of-game, that are worth mentioning:

  • My Tuesday night Original D&D group expanded ever-so-briefly after WisCon 34 to a total of EIGHT players: Gene, Dave, Nix, Noelle, Clint, Tristan, and a cameo appearance by my friends Chris and Penny who had come from the UK for the convention and had some time afterwards.  Chris had not played D&D in about 25 years, and Penny had never played at all.  But they did well enough, playing two first level fighters.  More to follow there.
  • Albion, my Chivalry & Sorcery game set in late 12th Century England and Europe, has been on hiatus for awhile.  I hope to pick that back up soon.
  • Plans continue to move forward on a reboot of the UW Dungeon Masters Association.  We'll see how that goes.
  • The next Meetup of the Madison Traditional Gaming group is June 19th.  That should be LOTS of fun!
Busy?  No, not me.  Why do you ask? ;)

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

In Memoriam

I remember having dinner with Dave in Florida, a few years ago.  I was there for an academic conference, and he had taken me to a decent restaurant in Orlando.  We discussed various projects he was involved in, and reminisced about adventures with the Thursday Night Group.  He had mentioned just how much he enjoyed being at Full Sail, and regaled me with stories - some of which I had heard already - about the vagaries of teaching students about how to design games, and not just write computer code for pretty CGI.

It's been a year since he passed away.  Yes, I miss him - and Mike Ford, too, for that matter.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Starter Edition of Classic Traveller FREE

The Starter Edition of Classic Traveller is now available FREE.  Go get it and you will have Classic Traveller goodness to keep you adventuring for a long, long time.  One small amount of advice: there are three (3) downloads - the main rules, the charts, and the adventures.  You have to get them from the "My Account" section of either RPGNow or DriveThruRPG (with a tip o' the hat to Joseph Bloch for pointing this out).  I also spotted some additional material worth checking out:

If you aren't sure if this is really what you want, go read Jeff Rients' commentary about Starter Traveller - he's dead-on in his advice, and I agree with him whole-heartedly.

Traveller Tuesday: 1977 Edition Animal Encounters

Animals in any ecological system interact with each other, forming food chains, obeying instincts, defending territory, and generally living out their lives.  When men enter such an ecological system, they will encounter the animals of the system, prompting natural reactions, such as attack or flight....Although the precise nature of animals may change, and they may prove quite alien to ordinary experience, most will conform to the broad classifications given below.  A referee may choose to establish his own ecological system on a specific world, ignoring the encounter system outlined here.  This system, however, is intended to allow broad latitude in both animal types and attack/defense mechanisms, while remaining essentially logical and reasonable.

Worlds and Adventures, pg. 24

Traveller, 1977 Edition

What's unfortunate about the original Traveller Animal Encounters section was that we ignored it so thoroughly back in 1977.  This is incredibly unfortunate, since it is in this section that there were some amazing opportunities for world-building, all too often treated as "wandering monster" checks.  But that's not what the Animal Encounters section is about - it is actually a fairly streamlined system for devising creatures and developing their places in an ecology, without going into so much depth as to bog things down.

I do not recall in 1977 or 1978 any major attempt among Traveller players in the Twin Cities to come up with ecologies and creatures for their campaigns (I freely admit I might be misremembering).  We were so busy trying to replicate the Dorsai, or the Polesotechnic League, or some other space opera, that we simply didn't appreciate what was there in the rules.  And here is the crux of the problem: just how much imagination do most referees have, when they need to create difference ecologies, world after world after world?  Most of the referees I knew simply didn't get into this level of detail, and so we avoided it altogether.  Looking at them now, not only do I find myself wanting to engage in world-building, but to take some time and really work out some of the creatures that might be encountered once player-characters make landfall.

Possibly one of the most interesting aspects of the animal encounter generation system is how easily it could be adapted to generating aliens.  Humans are originally omnivorous brachiating hunter stock, roughly 60-75 kilos.  It would be fascinating as a creative exercise to generate the precursors of alien races and see what you come up with, especially if combined with the extended star system generation system from Book 6, Scouts.  What this illustrates is just how easy it is to add depth to the entire Traveller "mechanic" framework - this is true throughout the various sub-systems of the rules: character generation, ship design, star systems, etc.  But it also illustrates the enormity of the tasks involved in creating a truly in-depth universe.  The original admonition to generate a sub-sector and see what that gives you is almost precisely the same as admonitions in AD&D to start small when building your own world - a barony, with some nearby places of adventure, for example.

Next time is the last section of the 1977 Edition Traveller rules: Psionics.  After that, I intend to look at some of the early supplements and additional material, and how they changed the game.  What I am hoping to do is see what Traveller was like, pre-Third Imperium.  There was a tremendous opportunity available at the time to come up with multiple settings for the game, rather than the focus on that single campaign world, magnificent and yet flawed at the same time.  Judging by the TML debates about Aslan females wearing comfortable shoes while serving aboard pirate vessels that are tracking near-C rocks being flung at planets, there's been a tremendous amount of energy expended on the Third Imperium - and too much of it woolgathering.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Selling Stuff on Ebay

Just a bit of a heads-up: I am beginning to sell a number of older gaming items in order to help finance my travels around the country this summer.  The current items listed are:

Later auctions will include:
  • Adventurers Club #1-6 for Champions/HERO System
  • Back issues of Judges Guild Journal
  • Basic D&D - (Moldvay)
...and more, as time progresses.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

5 Classic Traveller links

As something of a follow-on to my Traveller Tuesday series, here are five links for Classic Traveller that were inspired by a recent email request:

Sites I like for CT:

In addition, I've been asked to put together an annotated bibliography for Classic Traveller, of relevant science fiction.  If people have suggestions, please leave them here!  Thanks!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Traveller Tuesday: 1977 Edition Encounters

It helped, being a scion of a baronial house in the Grand Duchy of Hermes, Falkayn reflected.  To be sure, he was a younger son; and he'd left at an early age, after kicking too hard against the traces that aristocrats were supposed to carry; and he hadn't visited his home planet since.  But some of that harsh training had alloyed with the metal of him... (pg. 6)
The machine said, "Further study will be required.  For example, it will be needful to know whether the entire cryosphere is going to become fluid.  Indeed, the very orbit must be ascertained with more precision than now exists.  Nevertheless, it does appear that this planet may afford a site of unprecedented value to industry.  That did not occur to the Lemminkainenites, whose culture lacks a dynamic expansionism.  But a correlation has just been made here with the fact that, while heavy isotopes are much in demand, their production has been severely limited because of the heat energy and lethal waste entailed.  Presumably this is a good place to which to build such facilities."
The idea hit Falkayn in the belly, then soared to his head like champagne bubbles.  The money involved wasn't what brought him to his feet shouting.  Money was always pleasant to have; but he could get enough for his needs and greeds with less effort.  Sheer instinct roused him.  He was abruptly a Pleistocene hunter again, on the track of a mammoth.  "Judas!" he yelled.  "Yes!" (pp. 23-24)
Satan's World
Poul Anderson (1969)

In the 1977 edition of Classic Traveller, it was envisioned that there were going to be three kinds of encounters: routine, random, and patron.  Routine encounters were simply those encounters which did not need a great deal of attention, while random encounters were an attempt to provide a variety of unexpected encounters, friendly or unfriendly.  In a sense, random encounters in Traveller were a kind of "wandering monster" although the parallel is not exact.  

Patron encounters were seen as a means of providing adventuring opportunities for the players, should they not have enough ideas on their own.  What's interesting as a difference between the 1977 and the 1981 editions is that the 1977 edition phrases the relationship between patrol and player-characters somewhat differently.

1977:  "One specific, recurring goal for adventurers is to find a patron who will assist them in the pursuit of fortune and power."
1982:  "The key to adventure in Traveller is the patron.  When a band of adventurers meets an appropriate patron, they have a person who can give them direction in their activities, and who can reward them for success.  The patron is the single most important NPC there can be."
There's a subtle but important difference between the two introductory passages.  The 1977 version leaves the relationship more undefined, and the focus is left on the player-characters.  By 1981, however, patrons are viewed as a sort of "story-controller" which shifts the focus from the players' intentions to those of the referee.  While some might say I'm splitting hairs, I think in retrospect it is difficult to not recognize the difference, and the effect it probably had on people learning the game.

In addition to the differences in how patrons were viewed, there is a section in the 1977 edition on nobility.  This section was shifted in the 1981 edition to Book One: Characters and Combat, but putting it by encounters in the 1977 edition was a clear suggestion that nobles were seen as being potential patrons:

At the discretion of the referee, noble persons (especially those of social standing 13 or higher) may have ancestral lands or fiefs, or they may have actual ruling power....Ranking above duke/duchess are two levels not reflected in social standing: prince/princess or king/queen are titles used by actual rulers of worlds.  The title emperor/empress is used by the ruler of an empire of several worlds. (pg. 22, Worlds and Adventures)
In the 1981 edition, the mention of ancestral lands and actual ruling power is muted by the modifier "some ancestral lands or fiefs, and may actually have some ruling power..." [emphasis added]  So this is another suggestion of the openness of the 1977 edition, which gets more constrained by the 1981 edition.  The entire idea of scale in interstellar relations was left open for the referee to determine, with just the suggestion of "empires" as comprising "several worlds."  That's far different from the Third Imperium.  (Some of this gets cleared up in an article by Marc Miller published in 1979 - but I'll get back to that.)

Thus "encounters" in the 1977 edition were left to the referee to use as they saw fit, but in a more "sandbox-y" way than the 1981 edition.  From game play, I recall that considerable time was spent attempting to find patrons, though the resulting adventures were as much about the players' intentions, if not more so.

Next time: Animal Encounters

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Distracted just a little

Sorry about missing a Traveller Tuesday; I've been dealing with some of the fallout from the Great TARGA Porn Debacle.  It's mostly been dealt with, though there will be a lot of interesting and potentially productive results from all that.

Meanwhile, I have my players' map of their delving into Xylarthen's Tower to share with all of you, once I have a chance to scan it in.

Sunday, March 21, 2010


Just got back from GaryCon - and it's not even over!

Due to a perfect storm of multiple events scheduled on the same weekend, I was only able to spend some time yesterday at GaryCon.  But what a time it was - I had a chance to see various lions of the hobby: Frank Mentzer, Bill Hoyer, Tom Wham, Tim Kask, Mike Carr, and many others.  What made GaryCon so amazing for me was the feeling of being with over 200 other people who were all interested in the OSR.

I acquired a back issue of Judges Guild Journal I was lacking from my collection, and I talked for some time with Allan Grohe.  I also had a chance to talk with the great guys at Dead Games Society - they are doing some very cool things; look for a possible exciting announcement from them shortly.  And I got the opportunity to present a check to Luke Gygax from TARGA for $350.00 as a donation to the Gygax Family Memorial Fund.  How cool is that?

p.s. I am definitely going back next year.  This con is awesome. :)

Being An Arbiter of Taste

I personally find it bizarre that some corners of the OSR think we should be spending our time debating how ethical it is to have mentions of sex and adult intimacy in reference to a game which has been semi-humorously summarized as being all about "killing things and taking their stuff."

Of course, I could be wrong.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Traveller Tuesday: 1977 Tech Levels, Part 3 of 3

Technological index may vary from 0 to 18, more commonly ranging from 4 through about 10.  Higher numbers indicate greater capacity....The technological index is used in conjunction with the technological level table to determine the general quality and capability of local industry.  The tables indicate the general types or categories of goods in general use on the world.  In most cases, such goods are the best which may be produced locally, although better goods may be imported by local organizations or businesses when a specific need is felt.  In most case, the local citizenry will not be armed with weapons of a type which cannot be produced locally, although police or military units may be armed with weapons up to several levels above local technology.  Technological level also indicates the general ability of local technology to repair or maintain items which have failed or malfunctioned....The technological level tables have several spaces or holes, and such gaps should be filled in by the referee or the players when they discover items or devices of interest.

Worlds and Adventures, pp. 9-11
Traveller, 1977 Edition

Terse.  That's about the best way to describe this section of the original Traveller rules.  What did we get?  A sense of general technological development, the use of local conditions as a context for technological capacity, and a specific suggestion to "fill in the blanks."  It's also quite clear that this entire section is written with the referee as the intended audience.  Just three short paragraphs and a couple of charts - it might as well have been labeled, "not to be left unfinished."

I recall quite distinctly several debates about how easy it would be to get ships repaired on planets with tech levels of 7 or under.  Generally speaking, tech level was used as a limiting factor - while there was considerable variety between tech levels of different planets, most of the time, tech level wasn't thought of as the basis for suggestion, but rather as the end of discussion.  "I want to get my ship repaired." "Yeah, well, the planet is tech level 8."  "They have spaceships, right?"  "Your jump drive is tech level 10 - too bad."

This attitude was reflected in the reviews of the time.  Here's Don Turnbull in White Dwarf # 6:
Tech. Index: 5. They have developed gunpowder (they have SMGs) but don't know how to make chain armour; they have simple computers and radio, but no television, and despite the fact that there is quite a lot of water about they haven't invented the submersible. They have fixed-wing aircraft but no nuclear fission. Altogether this is a pretty improbable world. Interesting to know, for instance, how those fixed-wing aircraft fly in what is virtually a vacuum, and what do the bureaucrats breathe?

Or Tom Wham's more positive review in The Dragon #18:
Technology: 14 (very high) Non-industrial world...As you can see, “Grendal” nearly created herself.  The small population, high technology and government type seemed to dictate to me that Grendal is some sort of research base on a fairly inhospitable little world. And so she shall be when any adventurers land upon her.
So, technological level was seen as a suggestion to the referee about what could be expected from place to place.  The idea that technological levels might be shared from one star system to another, or that tech levels might get improved over time, were not easily grasped (though some referees did do both of these things). Even so, within those three paragraphs was a lot of implications to act as a guide for the aspiring referee:

  • Tech levels range from 4 (roughly c. 1900 AD) to 10 (beginning interstellar flight).  That meant that a lot of planets were of not high enough tech level to produce their own starships.  This in turn meant that a few planets of high enough tech level (and population) probably would dominate interstellar relations.
  • Local planetary conditions would shape how technology was used - Marc Miller would later refer to Fritz Leiber's short story "A Pail of Air" to show how even a low tech level could be plausible on an (seemingly) airless world.  This particular aspect of "fleshing things out" was something generally observed in the breach by most referees in 1977.
  • Higher tech level stuff might be available on a planet, but would likely cost more, due to importation and scarcity.  This in turn would provide a trade opportunity, for those ready to see it.
  • Tech level would shape and limit the technology in use in interstellar relations.  If you had a really high tech item, you'd have to be prepared to either take it back to its planet of origin to get fixed, or be ready to make the repair yourself.
There were some limitations and lacunae in the technological index scheme.  "Star Trek" tech - matter transport, artificial intelligence, anti-matter power sources - were all off the chart, so to speak.  Any sense of how aliens might develop technology was missing - referees were to assume that alien races would develop like humans - or not.  (In fact, there were no rules for the development of aliens, at all - I'll come back to that in another post.)  The effect of law level on technology and availability was also left to the referee to determine.  The relative terseness of the technological index system seems ideal from an "old school" perspective.  Fill in those blanks, make up your own stuff, and don't look back.

Looking at the technological level table today, I'm struck by those empty spots in various columns.  Blasters, particle beam weapons, and yes, light sabers, all suggest themselves in the personal weapons column.  There are other possibilities: combat armor of different sorts; larger shipboard weapons, tightbeam communications, neural nets, cloning, medical advances, different kinds of water, land, and air transport.

But its the second-order derivatives that seem even more interesting today.  What tech level would be assumed to be the interstellar standard?  What choices would be made regarding tech level and availability, that would then shape the products available?  How would people notice tech level differences?  Might there be two or more tech levels in common use?  Some thought given to this before the start of a campaign could make a lot of difference in how the world feels to the players.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Traveller Tuesday: 1977 Tech Levels, Part 2

The next morning, he and Harkaman took an aircar and went to look at the city at the forks of the river. It was completely new, in the sense that it had been built since the collapse of Federation civilization and the loss of civilized technologies. It was huddled on a long, irregularly triangular mound, evidently to raise it above flood-level. Generations of labor must have gone into it. To the eyes of a civilization using contragravity and powered equipment it wasn't at all impressive. Fifty to a hundred men with adequate equipment could have gotten the thing up in a summer. It was only by forcing himself to think in terms of spadeful after spadeful of earth, cartload after cartload creaking behind straining beasts, timber after timber cut with axes and dressed with adzes, stone after stone and brick after brick, that he could appreciate it. They even had it walled, with a palisade of tree-trunks behind which earth and rocks had been banked, and along the river were docks, at which boats were moored. The locals simply called it Tradetown.
- Space Viking, 1963
H. Beam Piper

Okay, so I lied.  I was going to talk about encounters this week, until I noticed just how much there is to say about tech levels in Classic Traveller.  There are some interesting assumptions in Book Three, not the least of which is that interstellar travel and contra-gravity become possible in what should be the near future for Earth (despite the assessment of a tech level of 5 in Book Two).  While this might seem somewhat incongruous, it becomes even more curious when you realize that the world generation system results in wildly disparate tech levels for different star systems, right next to one another.  A lot of ink has been spilled over this since 1977, most of it trying to point out how "it ought not work that way."

However, the relatively imminent development of interstellar travel combined with worlds with different tech levels matches Space Viking to a "t" - and also the Demon Prince series by Jack Vance, or King David's Spaceship by Jerry Pournelle, and even the Polesotechnic League stories of Poul Anderson.  The concept of fallen star empires slowly rebuilding, with humans striving for something more, is a powerful theme.  So powerful, in fact, that a lot of campaigns were built around this back in 1977.

What makes this more interesting is incorporating the OSR idea that it is okay to leave descriptions relatively sparse so as to allow for later inspiration or improvisation - the UPP system for stars and planets fits this very nicely. Combined with different tech levels, and the referee can find a myriad different reasons why things are the way they are.  Between 1977 and now, the biggest mistake seems to have been to assume that the Traveller rules and background setting can be used for "reverse-engineering" how things actually work.  Unfortunately, this has mostly led to debacles over money, credits, trading, and whether or not markets could or should get regulated in the future.  This was and is boring.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Cold Hard Facts

Original D&D cost $10.  That's a fact.  Using any of a number of online inflation calculators (I used this one), we can see that what cost $10 in 1974 would cost approximately $43 in today's money.  In 1974, the minimum wage was approximately $2/hour, which would be worth a little over $8/hour in today's money.  However, the current minimum wage is just over $7/hour.

So the meaning of this is simple: since wages have not kept pace with inflation, the average income buys less than it did back in the 1970's.  For your average middle-class teenager, there are more demands on even part-time wages than in the past.  My own experience teaching college students is that they are more reliant on their parents' incomes than in the past.  So a game that costs more than $40 in today's money represents a higher threshold of entry into the hobby than D&D did back in 1974.  While one might argue that all that a player needs these days is just the 4e Players Handbook, that's not a complete game.  The entire set of 4e hardcovers is over $100.

What I am trying to point out is that nobody should be surprised that sales figures for 4e D&D don't match WoW subscription rates - it's that high threshold of entry that makes it harder for new players to get involved in our favorite hobby.  (This is something of an argument for a decent $10 or even $20 RPG, but that's for a different post.)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Traveller Tuesday: 1977 Edition Tech levels

Tech levels in Classic Traveller have always been a subject of debate.  Back in 1977, what was interesting was seeing the range of tech levels, and what they meant.  Because of the relatively "gritty" feel of the original game - firearms and cutlasses on the ground, lasers and missiles in space - there was a lot of room for experimentation and creativity in the higher tech levels.  It was clear to most of us that Traveller was not a game for Star Trek simulation, since matter transport and anti-matter were "off the chart", essentially - TL 16 and 17, respectively.  However, that left a lot of room for referees to work in, and I recall people taking advantage of that.  But the play of the game tended to revolve around more easily grasped tech levels; TL 12 and under, mostly.

What emerged from re-reading the 1977 edition of the rules is shown above.  It shows the one example planet in the entire game: Earth.  Earth has an E class starport, 8000 miles in diameter, a clean standard atmosphere, 70% hydrographics, roughly a billion inhabitants, a balkanized government structure, a law level of two - and a tech level of five.  Now maybe that's a typo; in the 1981 edition, the tech level is eight, so perhaps this is just off.  However, what this suggests is that, overall, Earth's technological capabilities are not simply the highest level possible, but more what can be commonly produced.  (Remember, this is all conjecture.) What does TL 5 represent? Firearms for personal weapons, cloth armor, sandcasters and mortars (but not rockets), the very earliest computers, radio and television, ground cars, fixed wing aircraft, and oil as a major fuel.  Roughly 1940's level of technology - which is okay, if you accept that this was a planet-wide average - and that the entire system of tech levels itself was at best an approximation.

Needless to say, getting the highest quality high tech stuff was important - but the scale of tech levels themselves made game play more interesting, as we tried finding the "sweet spot" between different tech levels, available gear and trade goods, and how to take advantage of that, whether trading or raiding.  What I recall most clearly was that most "star empires" operated around tech level 12 or so - that being seen as the "upper edge" of what was easily developed.  There were a lot of star systems with much lower tech levels, making them interesting places to visit (and potentially sign up for lucrative trading deals, or consider for raiding purposes).  Since books like Space Viking and The Mote in God's Eye and Trader to the Stars were our inspiration, we were all trying the tramp freighter route, trying to get enough credits to buy a Type C mercenary cruiser, and then go raid planets for their wealth.

I recall quite distinctly rolling up a character who was a Navy Admiral, who then got several boosts to his social standing as he mustered out.  I presented this character to my friend Rick, who was running a Traveller campaign - could this fellow be a planetary ruler?  Rick grudgingly allowed this; my admiral ended up with a planet with a relatively lower tech level - 7 or 8, if I recall correctly.  There was some discussion of what the admiral's planetary government could build up, without me having a really good grasp of what was possible.  It ended somewhat abruptly with the arrival of pirates/Space Vikings of a sort, and the discovery that I had made some poor decisions as the planetary ruler, building trading ships without having planetary defenses.  In the end, the lower tech level of the planet made it difficult if not impossible to actually get what I wanted - rather unfortunate to the teenager I was back then!  I've often wondered what it would be like to play this scenario out again, knowing what I know now.  With a Classic Traveller revival, that might be possible - I can only hope!

Next Tuesday: 1977 Edition Encounters
Previous Tuesday: 1977 Edition Worlds, Part Two

Saturday, February 27, 2010

This looks like fun! Read an RPG Book in Public!

So I read over on the Escapist about "Read an RPG Book in Public Week" - I think this is a grand idea.  I've been known to be reluctant to read my role-playing games in public, but that was because of unfinished-dissertation-guilt more than anything else.  I'm going to have to think about it, but I bet I will have lots of opportunities to try this out!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Race as Class

I'm having an epiphany of sorts.

For a very long time, I thought that the idea of "race as class" was just plain weird.  Why couldn't a dwarf be a fighter?  Why can't a hobbit be a thief?  It seemed very strange to me, reading about this in Moldvay/Mentzer Basic D&D.  "It's about the focus of the game" people would say to me.  Still, I couldn't quite wrap my brain around it.

When I got Advanced Edition Companion, I found myself thinking quite happily about all the different classes and races I wanted to have available for play in my new campaign.  I began to realize that - far from being an "either/or" choice - multi-classing and "race-as-class" were both acceptable, and depending on what I wanted, highly appropriate for my campaign.

I'm going through some of my thinking about this over on the ODD74 message board.  Feel free to stop over and add a comment or two.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The "New" Campaign: Trouble on Second Level

So in the latest session, our band of hardy adventurers had gotten split up:

  • Eric - a human cleric of Styphon the Healer-god
  • Reacher - a human "locksmith"
  • Fram - a human priest of Galzar Wolfhead
...had all gone through a teleportal that caused them to appear about 20 feet above ground level, near the entrance to the dungeon.  Meanwhile, the rest of the party:

  • Grollan - the dwarven fighter
  • Kyle - the halfling "locksmith"
  • Garric - the wildly courageous magic-user
...had all gone through the same teleportal, but using a different command word, were transported deeper into the dungeon.

Group A went back to Kingsbridge, the nearby village, and recruited help.  With two warriors and a bard, they went back into the dungeon in search of their friends.  Going through the teleportal, they were reunited with their comrades, and began to make their way out.

On the way out, they found themselves on the second level of the dungeon.  In a particular portion of said level, they had encountered a guard post manned by hobgoblins.  In previous expeditions, they had tried to take out the hobgoblins, to little effect.  The hobgoblins had initially asked for a toll of a silver piece per party member, but this was refused by stingy player-characters ("what, put money back into the dungeon?  What are you thinking??").  Each expedition had seen an escalation in tactics: caltrops, molotov cocktails, tripwires, combined arms tactics etc. So on their way out, the player-characters decided it would be a good idea to take out the hobgoblins once and for all - BUT!  The doors leading to the guard post had been spiked shut, leaving one long corridor leading to the actual guard room.

As the player-characters peered cautiously around the corner to see what was there, I told them, "it's hard to see all the way to the guardroom, as the corridor has been keep purposely dark - there are some darker shapes in the shadows though, and something is clearly moving.  All you can hear from down the corridor is an ominous krick-krick-krick-KRICK sound (not unlike the pawl on a rachet).  Oh, and right there, hanging on the wall around the corner is a wooden plaque."

The players, being properly curious, asked, "what does the plaque say?"

So I handed them this:

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Traveller Tuesday: 1977 Edition Worlds, Part Two

Alternate World Forms:  Several alternatives to the traditional spherical world form are possible. Most occur when a civilization wishes to trap and use energy from its central star, and needs great land surface to do so.  In addition, population pressure (especially on a civilization unable to develop interstellar travel on a large scale) may be a contributing factor.  Alternate world forms are not included in the world creation sequence, but may be provided on a sparing basis by the referee.  They are ideal for large population worlds, but may also be populated by smaller numbers, as in degenerate or decimated worlds.
Worlds and Adventures, pp. 8-9
Traveller, 1977 Edition

The above paragraph is an example of something found in the 1977 edition that doesn't show up in the later, revised edition of the game.  The different kinds of alternative world form were mentioned, but the rationale for including them was not.  This may seem like a minor editorial decision, but it indicates in a subtle way how much more open the 1977 edition was to different ideas and ways of doing things.

Not unlike the idea of a "Saturday Night Special" from Empire of the Petal Throne, alternate world forms were intended to be rare.  Not too surprisingly, such "rarities" became significant points of interest in campaigns developed and played in the Twin Cities in 1977 onwards.   A Dyson Sphere (see left) was part of several adventures in several campaigns.

Another interesting omission from the later editions of the game was the Jump Route Determination Table.  This table existed to help the referee map out "the charted space lanes, which mark the regular routes travelled by commercial starships."  It might be possible to think of the resulting "space lanes" as corridors connecting the different "rooms" as represented by the star systems - I don't want to overextend the dungeon metaphor, but it was the prevalent way of thinking back in the mid-70's.  The 1982 edition included a much more vague section, sans table, which assumed that the referee had already figured out the larger political picture.  Again, perhaps a subtle distinction, but one which I believe reflects changes in thinking between 1977  and 1982.  I recall there being some debate about the utility of the table at the time, but looking at it now, it provides a straightforward way of determining a lot about the relationships between star systems without making assumptions about a larger "Imperium."  In a fairly real way, a thoughtful referee could randomly generate a sub-sector or two, and then figure out what the larger interstellar community looked like.  

Something missing from the 1977 edition is the concept of "travel zones" - the now-familiar Amber and Red Zones.  I was surprised by this - I could've sworn they were there, but they apparently were added in either the first issue of the Journal of the Travellers Aid Society or possibly Adventure 1: The Kinunir.  I remember that there were other in-game systems for dealing with "restricted worlds" but I don't recall any specifics - save that there were usually well-armed interdiction satellites that referees would put in place to deter trespassing player-characters.  It would be interesting to come up with an alternative interdiction system, but I must admit that the entire idea of Amber and Red Zones is now a part of what I think of as "Traveller" so I suspect I will continue to use them.

It's difficult to convey just how much of a difference these seemingly minor subtractions and additions actually made in world creation, but it was significant.  It also shows how the various assumptions and details of the GDW-in-house campaign, the Third Imperium, emerged rather slowly, allowing for nearly two years of campaign play in a myriad different universes.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Update on the "new" campaign

In the three weeks and two sessions since I last reported on my "new" D&D campaign, we've added not just one player, but two - I'm up to three players at my local FLGS, and other gamers are beginning to notice.  It's fun, but I must admit I'm continuing to run into some issues in running Somebody Else's Dungeon aka Xylarthen's Tower, courtesy of Jeff Rients. The biggest issue is that I've discovered that designing a "mega-dungeon" is an intensely personal creative effort.  Don't get me wrong, there's some awesome goodness (badness?) in Jeff's design - but I have a growing sense of I want to draw my own dungeon, dammit.

Besides that creative itch waiting to be scratched, I'm finding some more minor issues that keep cropping up that I will eventually want to house-rule:

  • The d6 roll for opening doors - does everybody get a chance?  Once for the entire party?  What about multiple people helping out?  I'm finding I might want to have some sort of door resistance amount, and then add or subtract that to the roll.  We'll see.
  • What about chopping down doors?  This also implicitly asks, what are dungeon doors made of?  I'm not necessarily into various different types of doors, with different hit points - that way lies a particular kind of minutiae-laden madness.
  • Tactics.  My background with miniatures has led me to think more about the tactics usable during melee.  Don't want 3e levels of unnecessary detail, but I also don't like having to remind players that their characters might know something about how to fight.
  • Wandering monsters.  Designing ever-longer lists of monsters and encounter tables to match sounded tiresome and neverending.  However, there is a solution!  Taking a page from James Ward's article "The Wandering Monster" in The Dragon #15, I've started to use 3x5 cards for each wandering monster encounter.  This ought to be interesting.
What's good about all of this is that I'm having a grand time re-learning how to properly run a campaign.  At some point, I am likely to either modify this one into what I really want, or start over from scratch (sound like any fixer-upper home to anybody?).

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Traveller Tuesday: 1977 Edition Worlds, Part One

The referee has the responsibility for mapping the universe before actual game play begins.  The entire universe is not necessary immediately, however, as only a small portion can be used at any one time.  In unsupervised play, one of the players can generate worlds and perform mapping on a turn by turn or adventure by adventure basis....
Worlds and Adventures, page 1
Traveller, 1977 Edition

One of the daunting tasks faced by the creators of Traveller was how to deal with mapping out space.  Being good wargamers, they realized that attempting to map out space in three dimensions was going to be difficult (though not impossible) for the average wargamer/roleplayer.  So they settled on an abstract representation which was referred to as a subsector.  The map of the subsector represented an 8x10 section of space, with each hex being one parsec across.  For anybody familiar with astronomy, this two-dimensional representation was completely artificial and unrealistic, but that was unimportant from a role-playing perspective. I've included a scan of the original subsector map from page 3 of Worlds and Adventure; the only thing that could've improved the original game would have been a sample planet and a sample subsector.  However, those would've taken up more space than GDW apparently felt was available for the game.  For whatever reason, the subsector hex grid was left as a tabula rasa upon which referees were invited to create their own settings.  Not everyone thought this mapping paradigm worked the best, however.

Over to the right, you can see one of the variations on mapping for Traveller that was devised back in 1977.  The idea was to take a sheet of hex paper, draw in a larger grid of hexagons, and then enter the Universal Planetary Profile.  Starting in the center hex, write in starport type, and then clockwise around from the hex immediately above, planetary diameter, atmosphere, hydrographics, population and law level.  Tech level went to the bottom left; presence of gas giant to the bottom right.  Notation of naval base and scout base in upper left and right, respectively.  The two side hexes may have been used for additional stats, but the memory has faded over time.  However, the systems shown here are as follows:

  • The planet listed in the upper left is the one generated (and left unnamed) by Don Turnbull in his review in White Dwarf #6, from 1978.  The UPP is 0201 C81378B-5 S G.
  • The planet on the lower right is "Grendal" from The Dragon #18, September 1978.  The UPP is 0303 A212221-E G.
  • The planet further to the right and a little up is one I generated for this post.  The UPP is 0402 A656462-9 G.
Star system creation therefore was not terribly "realistic" at all.  However, what it did do was provide a template to follow for mapping out adventure, in much the same way as dungeon and wilderness maps did for Original D&D.  This was, I think, a significant part of the success of Traveller when it initially appeared - the maps did not need to be hard science for the game to work; a structure suggesting a science fiction setting was sufficient and relatively elegant to implement.

But mapping was not the only set of assumptions embedded in the rules for stellar mapping and world generation.  In a follow-on post, I will take some time to examine some of the social assumptions in the original game involving world building, and what they meant for referees at the time.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Advanced Edition Companion: Initial Review and Reflection

I just got my copy of Advanced Edition Companion  in the mail from Lulu.  Man oh man oh man....I've only had the briefest chance to look through it, but it looks really, really good.  Did I mention really good?  I think Dan's got my number with this product - almost like he was reading my mind.

James Maliszewski had provided an excellent review of Advanced Edition Companion on Grognardia, so I was very much looking forward to getting my own copy.  I think what I've really appreciated about Advanced Edition Companion in my initial perusal is that the entire book is essentially optional rules, rather than an "approved way to play."  I've mentioned before that I've never gone along with the idea that OD&D with all its supplements is the same as AD&D, primarily because of this fundamental difference in philosophy.  OD&D resonates with the Afterword of Volume Three, in which Gary advises "...the best way is to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way!" while AD&D ended up being the TSR "official set" - which meant that every referee and every campaign had to align themselves a greater or lesser distance from the Pattern of Lake Geneva.

Advanced Edition Companion avoids this by bringing lots of crunchiness from AD&D or OD&D with everything, and doing so in a way that makes it easier - not harder - for referees to use.  And it seems that Jamie Mal likes this, too.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Traveller Tuesday: 1977 Edition Experience

"As characters travel through the universe, they already know their basic physical and mental parameters: their basic education and physical development have already occurred, and further improvement can happen only by dedicated endeavor.  The experience which is gained as the individual character travels and adventures is, in a very real sense, an increased ability to play the role which he has assumed..."
Starships, page 40
Traveller, 1977 Edition

This section, much-maligned since Traveller's first appearance, is perhaps the biggest difference between Traveller and Original D&D.  My original title for this post was "Experience - the Anti-D&D" simply to illustrate this very real divide.  Instead of the bildungsroman aspect of D&D, in which player-characters are completely inexperienced and then develop over time, Traveller's designers assumed that characters would be capable and competent before the start of play.  It's a natural result of the character creation system, but we did not fully understand that back in 1977, and judging by commentary on various Traveller-related forums and mailing list, still not properly understood to this day.  Kenneth Bearden, however, has done some excellent work exploring this issue on the Citizens of the Imperium message boards.

Conceptually, it is fairly simple.  The life-course development model, using terms of service, was an elegant way of encouraging players to roll up characters who were not too young and not too old.  Too young and they would lack the skills necessary to adventure and travel.  Too old, and they would be infirm and too fragile to adventure.  But the deeper implication was that in-game development of skills and ability was very limited - and coming from D&D, that seemed a little strange to many Traveller players.  However, there were options for improving Education as a stat, weapons expertise, skill improvement, and physical fitness.

I recall some attempts to use the Traveller experience system back in the late '70's, but most of the time it was taken as a cross between "on-the-job training" and "I wanna better character."  I think this ended up skewing our understanding of the assumptions underlying Traveller, and made it more difficult to see how the system worked.  In other words, the deeper assumptions implicit in the rules were more of a control than any stated background (e.g. educational institutions in the Third Imperium).

The above is the only ordinary method of self-improvement available to characters.  Highly scientific or esoteric methods of improving personal skills and characteristics are logically, provided the characters search hard enough for them.  Such methods could include RNA intelligence or education implants, surgical alteration, military or mercenary training, and other systems.  Alternatives to the above methods must be administered by the referee.
 Starships, page 41
Traveller, 1977 Edition

This quote from the end of the Experience section, taken with the one above, reveal just how different Traveller was in the beginning from what has developed since then.  The idea that experience developed during game play improves player ability runs in parallel with more recent ideas about Old School game play. Additionally, the absence of a defined background setting for Traveller meant that referees had to come up with their own settings and universes - and the experience rules actually suggest ways in which a referee might develop something different.  In this sense, Classic Traveller provided a blank canvas - and encouraged referees to make it their own - and the experience rules were no different than the rest of the game.

Next Tuesday: Worlds

Editorial note: something odd happened with my attempt to post this last night.  It obviously wasn't there or went away.  I've restored it, but let me know if you actually see this post - comments, as usual, are always welcome.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Auction Announcements

As I've mentioned with items up for auction!

TARGA Announces Pledge-An-Auction Drive

TARGA is organizing the 2010 Pledge-An-Auction drive in support of GaryCon 2 and the Gygax Family Fund for use in funding a memorial statue in honor of Gary. Come join our virtual auction and help us to present a great donation to Luke Gygax at GaryCon 2 this year! Starts on January 25th!

So I've put up a copy of The Dungeoneer #2 for auction, and that will be followed by a copy of the D&D Rules Cyclopedia.  More after that, I am sure - so keep your eyes open for interesting stuff to bid on!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Digging Around...

So it turns out that I have a bunch of back issues of Great Plains Game Player and its successor, Gamelog, both of them published by Jim Lurvey.  Jim's a great guy - I can say that, having known him off and on for nearly 30 years now.

It just so happens that in an early issue of GP2, there's an article by one Gary Gygax, about the relationship between strength and weapons damage and other abilities.  Looks like the prototype for the strength tables in Greyhawk.  (I understand from a conversation with Jim a couple of years ago that GP2 was where the Thief character class first appeared, too.)

And then there's The Ryth Chronicle - John Van De Graaf's 'zine of campaigns along the Ryth River, "published as a public service by the Yggrdasill papermill" with the first issue appearing in the 4th week of March, 1975, if I've got it correctly.  Interesting thing about John's campaign is that he started keeping records from the 3rd week in November of 1974, so his campaign started with the original three booklets sans Greyhawk.  As a historical record, this is an amazing snapshot of what gaming was like Way Back Then.

Details to follow.... :)

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Five links to make refereeing easier

Something I like about technology is that it helps us do things that would otherwise be a lot more work.  Without further ado, here are five different online tools that ought to make refereeing a bunch easier:

If anybody knows more about the origin and provenance of these links, I'd love to know.  Thanks!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Traveller Tuesday: 1977 Edition Starships

"Worlds orbiting the same star are accessible by inteplanetary travel, including by scheduled liners and by ship's boats, pinnaces, cutters and even by lifeboats.  Generally, however, interplanetary travel takes long periods of time.  Since most stellar systems have only one major world, interplanetary travel is infrequently used....Worlds orbiting different stars are reached by interstellar travel, which uses the jump drive.  Once a starship moves to more than 100 planetary diameters from all worlds, it may activate its jump drive and move to another star system.  Jump drives transfer ships from one star system to another in about one week per jump."
Starships, page 1
Traveller, 1977 Edition

It was in Book Two: Starships that Traveller departed the most from Original D&D in its formatting.  That was understandable, since spaceships and interstellar travel were the thematic core of the rules.  But here, GDW took advantage of not only existing science fiction literature, but also its own previously published spaceship rules, Triplanetary.  Published in 1973, Triplanetary was notable for Newtonian mechanics, grease pencils, and being a lot of fun to play.  Designed by Marc Miller, it had a set of ships including Corvettes, Corsairs, Frigates, Dreadnaughts (see cover of the rules booklet), Torches, and Orbital Bases. Non-combat ships included Transports, Packets (armed transport), Tankers (fuel carrier), and Liners.  These would provided inspiration for the sorts of ships that appeared later in Traveller - the "dreadnaught" would morph into the Broadsword-class mercenary cruiser.

As far as any of us could tell, back in 1977, the science fiction inspirations for Traveller clearly included Space Viking by H. Beam Piper, as well as Trader to the Stars by Poul Anderson, and others.  But one author - E.C. Tubb - whose work I had not read at the time, had also provided a great deal of direct inspiration for Traveller's designers.  High, Middle, and Low Passage, Fast and Slow drug, all came from the Dumarest of Terra series, along with the seemingly-odd emphasis on blades and blade combat.  Keep in mind - we didn't have a dedicated background setting, merely assumptions about how interstellar travel worked and its various hazards, including hijacking, skipping, and piracy.  I've always found it strange just how much effort has been put to interpret Traveller's rules as an internally consistent worldview, when it was clear to us back in 1977 that the game was inspired by many sources and encompassed many different possibilities.

And so it was with Starship Economics that we found lots of assumptions about how things worked, naturally enough, but curiously very little embedded background (at least by today's standards).  A quick comparison between Mongoose's Traveller Pocket Rulebook and the original edition reveals a great deal of the Official Traveller Universe in the later version.  In both the Starship Economics and Starship Construction section, there are two "mini-games" that attracted attention.  In the former, finding cargo, passengers, paying fees, maintenance costs, and crew salaries - combined with the Trade and Commerce rules at the end of Book Two - formed the basis for a trading game that could probably have been ported right back into Original D&D.  In the latter, starship construction was the game itself.

After generating characters, starship construction was something of an obsession back in 1977.  Trying to figure out the best combination of weapons, drives, interior spaces, cargo and everything else was something that consumed hours of time.  Making modifications to the rules was also something of a cottage industry:
  • Halving fuel consumption from 10% of ship's mass per jump number to 5% became a "club standard" at the Golden Brigade.
  • Various kinds of defensive energy screens were attempted.  These were somewhat controversial, since they smacked of "handwavium" and Star Trek.
  • ECM, counter-missiles, and other augmentations to the ordinance section were also attempted.  These were rooted in the wargaming interests of many gamers at the time - but playing Fletcher Pratt's Naval Wargame in space was also something more than most of us wanted to do.
  • Building bigger ships was also a major area of endeavor.  Since Star Wars had just come out there was naturally interest in building really BIG ships (like Star Destroyer or Death Star-sized).  But Traveller's ships topped out at 5000 tons, so devising rules for bigger ships was hotly debated.
As for starship combat, I don't recall a lot of games where the actual combat was run as a miniatures game, as suggested in second half of Book Two.  We tended to run ship combat as an abstracted game, with descriptions of distances and hazards substituting for actually moving counters around on a game table.  (I have to admit to wanting to try out the ship combat rules again, if only for their own sake, and to see how they would've worked.  That may form the basis for another Traveller Tuesday.)

Next Tuesday: Experience - the Anti-D&D

Previous: 1977 Edition Combat 
Previous: 1977 Edition Characters
Previous: Our original inspiration 
Previous: The influence of OD&D 
Previous: The other "three little booklets" 
Next Tuesday: 

Monday, February 1, 2010

I think I'm busy

Doing some data analysis today, related to a query on this post on Grognardia.  I am currently...
  • Running a weekly OD&D game, using Labyrinth Lord as a base set with variants, missing one Tuesday a month
  • Running a twice a month Chivalry & Sorcery (1st Ed.) game
  • Participating in a monthly gaming meetup, usually running something like Classic Traveller, Empire of the Petal Throne, or maybe Mutant Future.
  • Playing in a monthly C&S (4th Ed.) game.
...which works out to gaming about 1.5 to 2 times a week.  Adding another regular game at this point is unlikely.  How much do you game?

Sunday, January 31, 2010

"New" OD&D campaign

Over the past three months, I've been running a weekly Original D&D game at my FLGS, Misty Mountain Games.  Like my previous attempt in Ames, I started with just one player, Gene.  Gene had showed up to one of the Madison Traditional Gaming meetups, and had a sufficiently good time that he was interested in a regular game.  I was initially worried about having only one player, but Gene seemed to be ready to take on the challenge, so off we went.

Rather than the Southlands setting I had used before, I went with a very simple set-up: "Here's the dungeon - the Tower of Xylarthen - and nearby is the village of Kingsbridge.  It's tiny and on the edge of everything.  Go kill some monsters and get their loot."  Gene rolled up two characters: Kyle, a halfling thief, and Grollan, a dwarven fighter.  I rounded out the party with Garric, an apparently fearless (or foolhardy) human magic-user with 1HP.

Some of my inspiration for this came from a series of posts on Ars Ludi about the West Marches campaign.  I figured that my weekly open game would lend itself to that kind of set-up, and I hoped that having a relatively simple game would be less work for me as a referee (which turned out to be true).  I also made a point of shamelessly swiping stuff from my collection of gaming magazines and materials, and then filing off the serial numbers to fit them into the campaign.  A lot of this was done simply to re-familiarize myself with the rules of Our Favorite Game, and to avoid me making a big creative investment in the world (an old mistake of mine).

Adventuring with just one player has been fascinating.  I've ended up re-sizing encounters to make it possible for an adventuring party of 3-4 characters to survive, though I haven't completely fudged everything.  I've also encountered real questions dealing with all sorts of stuff:
  • Combat: should initiative be just a d6 roll, including or not including a Dexterity bonus?  What about weapon length?
  • Base mechanics: who gets to roll for what?  Do I roll for opening doors?  How many chances do characters get?
  • Experience points: awarded for killing monsters, check.  What about monsters defeated or thwarted?  What about experience points for gold?  What about taking character level and dungeon level into account?
We've now gamed about a dozen times, and have added a player, Dave.  Now that we've doubled the size of the player group, we'll see how things evolve