Jul 3, 2015

Running a Traveller Session

Natalie B. of How to Start a Revolution in 21 Days asked on G+:

"Who's run Traveller? Has anyone ever written about the procedures involved in running Traveller, a la what Sham's Grog n' Blog did for megadungeon play?

I have a pretty good handle on how to prep Traveller (I think) but a much less solid idea of what a typical Traveller session looks like, and what the engine of play is."

I think this is a great question, and while I gave her a very preliminary answer on G+, I thought I'd expand on it here. I'll be talking mainly about Mongoose Traveller, which is the version I'm most familiar with, and I'm going to stick to talking primarily about the corebook rather than all the supplements.

The core of Traveller is a resource management game, much like D&D. Money. time and opportunity are the player character's resources. The purpose of the ship mortgage and any other debt they acquire is to put a compelling time pressure on them and force them to prioritise, choose and pursue opportunities, which in turn get them the money they need to reset the timer. This is the core engine of play, and all the worldbuilding procedural stuff exists to flesh out these things in play.

To make this engine work, time needs to be tracked closely. Jumps take a week each, with a week of refueling between them in most cases. This means that in most cases, PCs have at most two weeks in a given system to make good on every opportunity available - less if they have to jump more than once or if they have to travel between the capital planet and the jump horizon. Depending on the referee, you may enforce that the PCs can only make payments on their ship in systems that have the complex credit arrangements necessary, meaning they have to spend time going back to these systems, intensifying the pressure on them.

Travelling itself imposes costs. There's fuel, crew costs, maintenance, and then any additional costs for dealing with danger, like buying weapons, repairing damage, etc. There's the costs of picking up trade goods if you're trading, there's port fees, there's taxes, etc. These costs should be concrete whenever possible. You want the PCs to see their bank accounts constantly ticking down, with occasional top-ups when they accomplish something. Usually, you want them to begrudge paying these, since it will drive further opportunities - smuggling; handovers in shifty, isolated locales far from local governments; taking occasionally foolish risks to squeeze out those last few credits or avoid handing them over to someone else.

The last piece is to generate more opportunities than the PCs can possibly ever accomplish, and then to make them either time-limited, or randomly occurring. This forces prioritisation. The most boring Traveller games are the ones where there's only one thing to be doing at any given moment. Opportunities should take different forms - mercenary tickets, booming markets, patrons with urgent requests, secret tip-offs and treasure maps, disasters, the locations of lost systems, illegal ancient alien technology, gold rushes, etc.

By altering variables of opportunities, the referee can influence PC behaviour quite strongly - if all roads lead to system X, then chances are the PCs are going to system X, whereas if everything goes in different, incompatible directions, the PCs are probably to pick either the safest or best paying option.

The last thing to bear in mind with this engine is determining how it faces the players. What information can they obtain before making decisions, and what's a gamble? How do PCs get this information? My experience personally is that the more information the better. The more factors the PCs have to account for, the more agonising any decision is. If you're going to leave a gap in their knowledge, then aim to either have it be to leave out a piece of information that will settle the decision either way for them, or that will drive them to want to acquire the answer.

Jun 18, 2015

Fast Crit Resolution in BRP

Calculating whether a particular roll is a critical success in Basic Roleplaying and its derivatives (Runequest, Openquest, etc.) is probably the most time consuming part of resolving a roll. Depending on the version, one needs to figure out what 10%, or sometimes 20%, of one's skill score is and then whether the roll comes under that number. While one can precalculate the number, the actual skill score frequently changes due to bonuses and penalties, which also change one's critical threshold.

I propose that adapting the method of resolving critical successes from the Harn system would allow one to resolve these rolls more rapidly. I'm surprised this hasn't become a core part of the BRP system's resolution. Harn's system is also percentile based, and you achieve critical successes 20% of the time, but the system can be easily adapted to the 10% threshold I prefer.

The rule:

If a roll succeeds, and the ones digit on the roll is a "5", the roll is a critical success.

This speeds things up by removing a process of calculation and replacing it with simple recognition. Choosing the "5" digit has the same effect as the already existing rounding rules for critical thresholds.

For a 20% critical success threshold, the two digits should be "5" and "0".

Jun 6, 2015

[Review] River of Heaven

The short version: Good system, badly edited, blah setting (mainly due to presentation). Mainly worth picking up if you're looking for the tools to run your own BRP or Openquest space setting.

River of Heaven is a frustrating book. The Basic Roleplaying lineage has a real shortage of solid science fiction implementations, especially if you're only counting ones in print or that aren't just Call of Cthulhu with spacesuit rules. So River of Heaven is really welcome for that reason. It uses the Openquest variant of BRP (one of my favourite versions of Basic Roleplaying), adapting a lot of the rules for firearms combat from the earlier Openquest setting-supplement The Company and adding spaceships / vehicles, bodily augmentation and a variety of biological types (genetically augmented humans, space-born humans, androids, etc.). Like all Openquest books, it's standalone, so you don't need a copy of the Openquest core rules to run River of Heaven games.

Though it has a particular setting associated with it (mostly detailed in the back of the book), you could easily adapt the system to your own science fiction campaign setting. In fact, my recommendation is to do so. If you wanted to pull out your old Mutant Chronicles books, this would be a good system to run games in that setting with.

The default setting is not terrible, but you get a lot of weirdly unplayable information about it, at the expense of interesting things to do. In general, the presentation veers towards physical details about the planets and stars, at the expense of the social geography, which is described only briefly for each one in longform text. I would rather know the capitals of the planet's polities than the metallicity of the star it orbits around, especially since the latter information is available on Wikipedia. The beginning of the major interstellar conflict that will eventually plunge humankind into a new dark age is briefly outlined in a planetary description that doesn't mark it out as particularly important or interesting (you will only realise it's the beginning of this conflict if you read two other parts of the book). This is not the only example of something being buried in a way that makes it hard to piece together.

The overall presentation of information leaves you grasping to pull it all together and make sense of the bigger picture or to get a clear idea of what your PCs could do that's particularly interesting.

The setting also has something that is purely a personal issue, and which may not bother you: A religion whose only religious doctrine appears to be "AI is bad" (the "Renouncers"). It's clearly a nod to Dune, one of the main influences on this game, along with Alastair Reynold's Revelation Space series. But it's a terrible science fictional trope, because it's unclear why anyone belongs to the religion. Why do they think AI is bad? Why are they a religion and not a political group? The Renouncers are set up to be major players in the setting, but we get only a few scraps of information. The cool alien villains that nearly wiped out humanity and that everyone is terrified by and the AI uplifters are also underdescribed, though at least one gets stats for two kinds of machine avatars.

The overall effect of the choices made about how to present this setting left me feeling unenthused about it. I don't think it's bad or stupid, it's just got an extremely weird focus about what information it wants to tell you about itself, and that focus doesn't sell it very well.

Production-wise, the book is both very pretty, and very, very badly edited, though there is at least one incomprehensible design choice. It's printed in full colour bleed, and the colour choices are well-made to improve readability (black text on a grey background). D101 books are almost always badly edited, but this is the worst one yet. Text is repeated both in headers, and most obviously, in the double-listing of PDAs in the equipment section. Some sentences, luckily mostly descriptive text rather than rules, are simply gibberish that look like half-finished rewrites. Tables have inconsistent spacing from the text around them. And in the combat section, several rules are just wrong or missing - the rules for double-tapping refer to hit locations (a thing the Openquest variant of BRP does not have) and there is no actual rule for determining how many shots in a burst hit the target despite the text telling you to roll to determine this. As well, it has the usual Openquest ambiguity about whether characters can dodge ranged attacks, with the dodging rules saying "No" unless they're hand-thrown, while various other spot rules mention doing so.

The incomprehensible design choice is to have five different sidebars on five different pages of the equipment section contain various sections of rambling in-character essay about tea (with a "Cont on pg. XX" at the end of each one). It looks like it was filler for various pages that had large tables on them and that couldn't fit a second table, but I'd rather just have had blank space, or at least a listing for tea in the "Food and Accommodation" table.

Like I said, it's a frustrating book. I do think there's a solid core here, especially with regard to the system, though the lack of editing gets in the way of it at times. It's worth picking up if you're looking for a BRP science fiction game and are willing to basically tear the system out and use it as a toolkit to run your own space adventures.

May 20, 2015

Class Remakes (Version 3)

I've continued to work on this project. Here's the most recent version.

Classes:

Berserkers
Clerics
Druids
Fighters
Monks
Paladins
Rangers
Thieves
Wizards

Necrocarcerus rules that would be useful to know to interpret this document:

1) Swords and Wizardry Complete

2) My skill system is built off of Skills: The Middle Road, so PCs need to roll 5+ on a die type that escalates in size as their skill level does. Rolling the maximum result possible on the die not only succeeds, but accomplishes the task in the next smallest increment of time (weeks become days, days become hours, hours become turns, turns become rounds, etc.).

3) My grappling rules involve the opponents rolling and comparing their hit dice, with the higher winning.

4) Feats of Strength allows brief but superhuman feats of strength (jumping, lifting, throwing, etc.) if you roll high on a d6 (the die type does not escalate). The abilities listed in tables for the thief, ranger and monk use the same mechanic.

5) I flipped the numbers around to make rolling high always good.

6) I have a perception system where passive perception is equal to the # of party members, and active checks involve rolling a d6 and adding that to the passive perception score.

7) There are only two alignments in Necrocarcerus - Lawful and Chaotic.

8) When you drop to 0 HP, you begin rolling on a critical table. Only some of the results are likely to kill you, but your chance of getting one increases as you continue to take hits.

May 18, 2015

Class Remakes (Second Version)

Original class remakes post

The new version

After thinking it over, I decided to pare down the number of classes in Necrocarcerus 1.3, mostly by eliminating choices that no one has ever taken that come from external supplements, but also by eliminating the assassins. This means no more bards, no more dandies, no more spiritualists, and no more walking ghosts. I rewrote the barbarian class from Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque Compendium to be a berserker class similar to the fighter but with rage. I'll be keeping the four spellcasting classes - Elementalist, Necromancer, Vivimancer and Weirdomancer, from Theorems and Thaumaturgy.

In the new version, I've updated the ranger and monk classes based on feedback, removed the assassin class, redone the fighter, cleric and thief, and added the berserker class. In later versions of this, I'll add the magic user, paladin and druid (more or less unchanged, though reworded from the original rules to be more concise). The psionicist is basically done, but will be issued once I'm finally done my psionics supplement. In the meantime, I'm going to continue to use Courtney's Psionics supplement.

My goal here, once all the class rewrites / remakes are done, is to incorporate this into Necrocarcerus 1.3 to reduce the number of external supplements referenced and the number of conversions required from other systems, and to consolidate the various house rules applying to each class directly into its entry, rather than requiring PCs to jump between multiple documents.

As always, comments and feedback are welcome. These are still works in progress.

May 17, 2015

Class Remakes: Assassins, Rangers, Monks

I'm working on a side project that might make it into Necrocarcerus 1.3. The project is to redo the classes I dislike the most (on a mechanical level) in Swords and Wizardry Complete and the various supplements I use for Necrocarcerus, as well as the ones that seem the least popular and useful under the Necrocarcerus rules. Generally speaking, these classes tend to be the grab-bag classes built around skills / non-magical powers. Tonight, I redid the assassin, ranger and monk classes (thieves, bards and psionicists are upcoming; dandies, spiritualists and walking ghosts are cut entirely). Not entirely coincidentally, the assassin, ranger and monk are all classes from later supplements.

My overall goals were to simplify these classes enough so that each fits on one page, to give them clear schticks, and to emphasise their abilities. I think most of these write-ups are straightforward, but just in case anyone isn't familiar with the Necrocarcerus house rules, the following may be useful to know.

1) Ability checks are made like a Thief's Hear-Noise skill (on a d6)

2) Skills use Skills: The Middle Road, so "Max result" means a character who is a Master of a skill (rolls a d12) who makes their ability check gets a result as if they had rolled 12. A character who is an Expert (d10) gets a result of 10, etc.

3) I have a perception system in Necrocarcerus.

4) Feats of Strength (for the ranger) are explained here.

5) Grappling rules are explained here.

I'm soliciting feedback, especially from the PCs & potential PCs in the current Necrocarcerus game, about what they think about these remakes of the classes, and whether they make them more appealing to play. These are first drafts, and will probably undergo some revision yet.

May 15, 2015

Charity for the Dead

Monks, Paladins, and Rangers have to donate substantial portions of their wealth to charity. Fortunately, Necrocarcerus has a robust third sector of NGOs, QUANGOs and radical social movements. Since there are no alignment restrictions in Necrocarcerus, these classes are free to choose the cause most closely aligned with their personal beliefs. A selection of causes follows:

The Committee to Abolish Life (Lawful) - The most influential and least radical Undead rights organization. Advocates gradual policy reform and other useless measures. Relies on the sale of branded merchandise and cash donations via mail.

The Communist Party of Necrocarcerus (Marxist-Leninist) (Chaotic) - Actually a Trotskyist front. Cash donations may be made in person at scattered booths, or by buying newspapers.

Doctors Without Scruples (Lawful) - Organ-harvesting for distribution to underprivileged Citizens. Donations of cash or parts can be made via mail.

Elderly Druids Association (Lawful) - Really a price-fixing & coupon-clipping scam pretending to advocate for ancient Citizens. Cash donations via mail. Has a mandatory monthly magazine full of "savings".

The Ferrymen (Chaotic) - Want almost everything abolished right away. Known for their protests at the least convenient times. Occasionally violent. Donations (Cash or product) may only be made in person.

The Fire Keepers (Chaotic) - Illegal health providers running hospitals, de-cursing clinics and the occasional spawning vat for impoverished wizards. Cash donations may be made to their capital campaigns at any Fire Keeper location.

Friendship Society of Necrocarcerus (Lawful) - Reformist claptrap focused on Undead-Citizen harmony. Donations (cash only) can be made to chuggers in malls or via text message if the money is in a bank. They also sell quarterly subscriptions to their newsletter.

Golemic Families of Necrocarcerus (Lawful) - Mainstream polygolemous advocacy that's as much about making it appear nonthreatening. Primarily receive corporate donations, but cash donations can be made via mail, text message, or via pledge form.

High Adventure (Chaotic) - Marijuana legalisation group. Mostly stoned into ineffectiveness. Donations of potions and cash may be sent via mail or in person. Sells weed at legalisation fairs.

The Museum of Necrocarcerus (Lawful) - Exhibits are a little shabby, but a donor wall that dates back 10,000 years. Cash or curio donations can be made in Downtown. They also sell calendars and posters.

Oozy International (Chaotic) - Really a pro-ooze political group pretending to be a charity. Advocates peace with the oozes. Accepts cash donations via mail, and donations of weapons etc. (secretly) in person.

Pets Necrocarcerus (Lawful) - Sentimental softies about animal-likes. Currently attempting to have muzzle laws on hellhounds overturned. Donations made by purchasing branded t-shirts, calendars, stamps, etc.

Portal Now! (Chaotic) - Wants AUC to open the portals and allow everyone to escape. Regularly subject to mass arrests, but strong grassroots support. Cash donations can be made via mail.

Railworkers, Grocers, Acrobats and Plumbers Union (Lawful) - Heavily armed trade union engaged in a cold war with their employers. Supports improving workers' rights. Donations of cash, weapons or armour can be made at any union hall / rail station.

Upright Business Bureau of Necrocarcerus (Lawful) - Shills for big business who claim to be interested in helping consumers. Cash donations may be made via mail or text message, tons of corporate donors.

The Wilderness Downtown (Lawful) - Hippies romanticising the environment. Donations of cash, plants and photographs may be made by mail or text message.