Friday, April 1, 2011

Mongoose Traveller - A Subtle Balance

So, I've been running a game of Mongoose Traveller for the last two months or so, and I have to say that my group and I are pretty happy with the system.  It's rules-light enough to fit all the important stuff into one book, uses the White-Wolf style "For a given task, choose an appropriate combination of ability score and skill" mechanic, and has a gaussian dice rolling model...  it's just a generally good core.  The whole 'dynamic initiative' thing is a bit odd (and a pain to keep track of), but it doesn't spoil the system.  One interesting feature that we've noticed as a group, though, is that the ways the game is balanced are kind of subtle.  We've run into two unexpected balancing mechanisms so far: speed of learning, and encumbrance.  As kind of an aside, I'm not the biggest fan of balance - I like just enough balance that multiple options or paths are reasonably useful and fun to play, not a draconian balance where all paths are perfectly equal (cough4ecough), nor a total lack of balance where there's only one acceptable way to play.  Trav's done a good job of balance; it's just taken us a while to figure out how.  Part of this could be layout; the relevant balancing rules keep cropping up in counterintuitive places.

To talk about speed of learning, I have to talk a little about Traveller's character generation rules first.  They're basically a solo game within the game; your character starts at age 18 with a fresh set of stats and a couple of background skills, and plays four-year terms in different careers (kind of like classes) to gain other skills, ability score boosts, and equipment.  Each term, you have to roll to survive, but, unlike Classic Traveller, failing a survival check in Mongoose Traveller doesn't cause character death; you just get ejected from your current career, lose a benefit roll, and gain some other penalty (sometimes ability score damage, sometimes an enemy, sometimes something else).  Additionally, as your character gets older, aging penalties start to come into play.  On a first read of the character generation rules, it appears to be optimal to go for as many terms as you can while keeping your aging penalties manageable; the penalties for failing to survive aren't that terrible, and the extra skills and gear are pretty nice.  So during our character generation session, we ended up with a group of 40- and 50-year olds, thoroughly skilled in their respective trades, and well-equipped (one was even a Duke), but starting to suffer from aging. 

And so for a while, it looked like that was the only 'optimal' way to play; go for as many terms as possible and rack up as much stuff as possible before you start.  Within a couple of sessions, though, we came across the Skill Learning rule way at the end of the Skills chapter, far from the character creation rules - to gain a new skill at rank 0, you need to train in that skill for a number of weeks equal to the total ranks in all skills that you have (for reference, a character with Gun Combat (Rifle) 3 is a crack shot, and one with Medic 3 is a renowned surgeon).  To increase the rank of a skill that you already have from n to n+1 takes a number of weeks equal to your total ranks in all skills plus n+1.  This became an issue when the characters were trying to explore a derelict without gravity or atmosphere...  and some of them didn't have the Vacc Suit skill, and others didn't have the Zero-G skill.  And it was going to take them 14 weeks to learn it.  They ended up just eating the penalties to all actions that lacking those skills imposed while exploring, but learning those skills became a high priority for all involved.  Likewise, the group's psion was untrained in Gun Combat, and spent 15 weeks learning to shoot.  By comparison, an NPC that the party picked up had only four total ranks in skills when they met her (not unusual for someone who only did two terms), and in the time it took the PCs to learn a new skill each, she learned three.  So there's the real balancing point between serving more terms and quitting early; if you quit early, you can learn new skills more quickly, and are better able to adapt to new situations.  While you lose out on gear and connections (one of the potential benefits of serving many terms are NPC allies and contacts), an inexperienced character is much more viable than we initially thought.

Speaking of gear, the second subtle balance point we encountered was encumbrance.  There came a time when the party had an opportunity to outfit everyone in military-grade environment-sealed combat armor, which would downgrade many potential threats to their survival.  A couple of players spoke up and said that heavy-duty combat armor was kind of counter to their character concepts, but they couldn't find an immediate mechanical reason not to go with the combat armor.  An intensive search of the rulebook began, and we eventually found the Encumbrance rules, located in an unassuming sidebar in the Vehicles section of the book.  It turns out that Traveller characters can't carry that much, and combat armor weighs a lot.  Light load for an average Traveller character is 14 kilos, or about 30 pounds.  While this is pretty close to D&D's average light load figure (33 pounds for an average human), the penalties for being encumbered in Traveller are much more severe; in D&D, carrying a heavy load reduces your speed, penalizes your dexterity-based skills, and limits your ability to dodge.  In Traveller, being encumbered applying a penalty to all actions requiring free motion, and induced fatigue in less than 15 minutes.  Fatigue, we discovered, applies a -2 penalty to all checks...  which is a pretty hefty penalty on a 2d6 roll.  Suffice to say, the combat armor was abandoned (except by the ex-marine, who already had a suit and had the strength to wear it), and a full gear audit was done.  Since Trav tracks gear in kilos, and you get at most 30 kg as a human (without cybernetic enhancement, anyways), the numbers stay pretty small and manageable.  That's been the primary deterrent for me and my groups historically with D&D encumbrance; tracking every last item in pounds is just a pain.  I think I may have to give the Alexandrian's rules for Encumbrance by Stone a go next time, and see how using encumbrance changes D&D gameplay.

There've been a number of consequences of using encumbrance in Traveller already.  It's been interesting watching the PCs have to choose between bringing sensor equipment and bringing a medical kit, or between more grenades and a sidearm.  Currently they're en route to a high-tech world to buy high-quality equipment which is functionally identical to the equipment they have now, except that it's more expensive and lighter-weight.  When we started playing Traveller, we knew that characters 'levelled' mostly by getting better gear, but what we didn't realize was that encumbrance was the primary limiting factor, rather than money (for personal gear - starships are another matter).  This change also means that Strength is no longer the dump-stat of choice - previously it was useful mostly as hit points (since in Traveller, "damage" is "damage to physical ability scores"), but it really wasn't generally useful for skills, as melee is kind of obsolete in the Age of the Laser, and athletics is pretty situational and easily overcome with vehicles.  The introduction of encumbrance makes putting a high score in strength pretty attractive, since it means you can carry more power.  Finally, when we first started playing, I restricted the players to the core rules, despite having a copy of Mercenary (one of the supplementary books), because the gear in Mercenary looked a little broken, and I was feeling leery of supplements after a slightly disastrous True20 game I'd run the previous semester.  After realizing that encumbrance was a balancing factor, I looked back at the weapons in Mercenary...  and lo and behold, they weighed a ton.  So we've legalized the new equipment, because it really isn't broken - none of the PCs have the strength to carry heavy weapons and also wear armor, so if they're going to use it, they better kill with the first shot.

So, closing thoughts.  Traveller continues to surprise us with its well-thought-out game design.  I'm starting to wonder if the Costs of Living at the beginning of the Gear section are there to balance out high SOC characters, and whether the maintainence costs of the ship (which we've swept under the rug as "covered by trading that we really don't want to do the paperwork for") are likewise a balance mechanism against ship size.  Basically, the game has got me looking at all the dark corners and ignored rules and going "Does this piece serve an important function?"  I think this is going to be a really interesting mindset to take back to D&D next semester; maybe we'll find some points we've been ignoring that serve a balancing function, and maybe we'll find some rules we've been using that really don't need to be there.


Stu Rat said...

Up until May 10th, 2011 you have white text on white background-I'm guessing you changed the blog appearance.

John said...

Huh! So they are. Hadn't noticed because I force-select colors in my browser settings. Thanks for the heads-up; I'll work on fixing it.