Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Mongoose Traveller - Scoundrel Review

I picked up a copy of Scoundrel over the weekend, and am pretty impressed with it.  138 pages, including front and back cover.  No bookmarks in the pdf, which is a definite strike against it, but made up for with content.  A quick skim of the table of contents shows 30 pages of new careers, 6 pages on criminal organizations, 14 on piracy, 18 on heists, 7 on smuggling, 3 on fences and illegal goods, 7 of new equipment, 24 of new ships, 3 on belt mining, 10 of "odd jobs" (patrons), 2 on scavenging, 4 on gambling, and 4 on 'lost worlds' as origins of barbarian characters.  Thus, while the book claims to be for both rogues and drifters, the rogues definitely get the lion's share of content.  Here's the play-by-play:

Careers: In general, the part of these Mongoose supplements that I'm least happy with is the new careers.  I kind of feel that they're largely unnecessary.  Expanded events and mishaps for the Core careers, like they did in Mercenary for Army and Marines, are wonderful, but some of the distinctions between new career specialties are splitting hairs, if that.  Blockade Runner vs. Smuggler Crew and Hitchhiker vs. Vagabond are the worst offenders, with Corsair vs. Jumpcusser being a third, weak example.  That said, the expanded events tables could be really useful for the corebook Rogue, having a Hacker specialty is nice if you want to play "the computer guy" (similar for Assassin, possibly), and the Pirate Vessel benefit is just awesome; 2 ship shares towards any ship, and you can outfit it with up to 3Mcr of weaponry on purchase.  This sounds like a wonderful replacement for the Scout ship, per my complaints here.  Also, the Incarceration table and rules for going to jail in past terms are fairly entertaining.  Not a fan of the new Security skill; it's interesting, but it feels like feat-based design from d20, more than standard Traveller.  I think if it sees play (ie, somebody rolls up one of these careers and gets it), it'll be useful for task chaining with other skills for security-related tasks, rather than used as a stand-alone skill.  Likewise, Forgery seems awfully specific for a skill; this feels like it should just be chained Deception and Languages + Edu (for the record, I also feel that Recruiting from Mercenary is just a use of Leadership, and Interrogation should probably be Deception + Str, Soc, or Int.  Combat Engineering and Instruction are kind of their own things, but also things that people will hopefully never roll up).  Also, one further minor nitpick was that the careers were listed out of alphabetical order, with Barbarian coming last, Intruder first, and things all jumbled in the middle.  It's really somewhat bizarre.  So, a rough start - I'm glad I skipped these during my initial readthrough.

Organizations: Rules for membership of criminal organizations, as well as a few samples ranging from standard mafia-type organizations to crazy cults.  I really could've used the Ine Givar entry in my last game, when the PCs were contacted by / contracted with a rebel group to divert a firearms shipment...  The Trust mechanics make decent sense, but this section is mostly fluff.  Fortunately, it's fairly good, useful-looking fluff.

Piracy: We start to get into the real meat of the book here.  Flavors of pirates, rules for finding targets, intercepting targets, called shots in space, looting times, response times from local naval forces, the works.  It's good crunchy stuff, and looks pretty usable; very much a "Damn, wish I'd had this last campaign when they were trying to hijack that ship..." chapter.  There's a little weirdness in terms of initial encounter distance, but I imagine that could be resolved with a little more thought.  Also some sample pirates with bounties and a couple of sample freighters with cargo for when your PCs decide to loot some hapless sod and you don't feel like rolling.

Heists: This is the longest text chapter in the book, and I'm sad to say that I haven't been able to give it a thorough enough read to do it full justice.  Opens with a list of actions relevant to scoping out targets and planning heists, then splits into two sets of rules - the first is an abstract system for running heists in low detail, while the other is a full system for when you feel like running at a dungeon crawl level of detail.  The abstract rules fit on a single page and look solid, and cover casing, planning, execution, and conclusion of the heist.  It vaguely resembles D&D4's skill challenge system, in that you want to avoid accumulating failures on relevant skills, but it's also very flexible about what skills you can use.  The full rules go into a variety of security measures ranging from walls to NAS sweeps to guard dogs and sentries (complete with sample equipment loadouts) and laser tripwires, as well as rules for 'alert level' which is increased by doing unsubtle things.  It's pretty much the whole shebang, and includes some good advice for refs looking to run heists (namely "Keep the time pressure on the PCs" and "There's always a complication".  Good advice in general, really).  This is followed by computer hacking rules which look pretty usable, and are also reasonably close to what I'd expect real hackers to be able to pull off, both in terms of time and difficulty.  Well done there; most hacking systems tend to be terribly unrealistic in regards to one or more of those.  Here it's all about elevating your clearance / user privilege level, which...  is kinda how it works, really.  Also provides a sample target / dungeon for a heist, which looks workable (but pretty damn secure...  eesh).  This chapter gets another "Wish I'd had this last campaign for when they broke into that corporate building..." rating.

Smuggling: This one is mostly rules for customs checks, and man oh man are there a lot of them.  My PCs should definitely have been caught carrying that alien artifact under these rules...  problematic.  Likewise trying to smuggle those guns to the rebels on Novo Rio.  Interesting rules, and handy to have around for those kind of situations.  Also some sample smuggling jobs.  One minor point is that here, we have another "Trust" score, on a per-system basis representing how well-known you are in the system (and hence the likelihood that customs officials will ignore you).  This is something of a namespace collision with the Trust scores maintained with criminal organizations.  A minor point, and I don't really have any suggestions for improvement, but just a little niggling as I was reading.

Fencing Illegal Goods: I think this was actually the one thing in here my PCs didn't try last campaign...  The short version is "They get 10% of the value of the goods stolen," while the long version is very similar to the trade rules for determining selling price of speculative cargoes, with some new DMs for 'hotness' of the goods.  I'm glad they included the short version, since that's what my players will likely want to use...  The random fences table also looks entertaining; always good to add a little flavor to NPCs.

Equipment: Lots of fancy new intrusion gear, intrusion-specialized computers, spydrones, sensors, crowbars (with upgrades!), a few boarding weapons, and some starship upgrades.  Painkillers look...  very powerful.  They're very cheap and serve as a means to prevent penalties which are caused by damage, and unlike most Trav drugs, they have no side effects.  These are definitely getting nerfed (dependency and tolerance, likely) if they see play.  Many items are flagged as 'suspicious', in that authorities will tend to take note of civilians buying them, which is neat - any reason to sic the police on my PCs is good (I kept failing my law level rolls last game...  they didn't get investigated even once, despite doing the most suspicious things ever.  Poor policing IMTU...).  Also a fan of the Cargo Waldo - powered exoskeleton that lets you carry more things.  Cue Ripley from Alien.  They're a mite expensive, though.  New weapons look reasonably balanced to possibly a little weak; I'm OK with that.  Rules for ceramic composite weapons are also very nice for passing metal detectors...  The ship upgrades are mostly 'ways to move cargo'.  The standouts are hidden compartments and grappling arms.  Overall, a pretty decent selection, and looks fairly balanced; I'd be much less concerned with allowing Scoundrel equipment than I was with Mercenary's gear.

Ships: Not much to see here.  They're mostly either refits of common classes with a few new features, or really big, expensive things that PCs might encounter but will likely never own.  The standouts here are the smallish, potentially hostile ships like the Pirate Interceptor, Pirate Carrier, and Customs Patrol Boat.  I could see these shaping up into interesting space combats.  Also amusingly, the 600-ton Customs Patrol Cutter looks disturbingly like the Reaver ship from the Firefly pilot...

"They'll rape us to death, eat our flesh, and sew our skins into their clothing...  Standard customs check procedure, really."

Belt Mining: Finally a Drifter chapter!  But it's kind of disappointing.  The rules are pretty cursory, with the notable omission of any rules for actually finding suitable asteroids.  Basically, this is just a pointer to Beltstrike; it actually opens with "A full discussion of belt mining, including a full adventure and the Belter career, may be found in Adventure 1: Beltstrike! For those without access to that book, this chapter provides a brief overview of asteroid mining."  Sadly, brief is something of an overstatement of its treatment.  First really disappointing part of the book for me, but then again I'm something of a belter fan, and it's not something that ever came up in-campaign.

Odd Jobs: A chapter of patrons, of mixed quality.  They're billed as things to do when you're without a starship, so again, drifter-focused.  Mostly entertaining, with some notable homages (Dune, Road Warrior / Fallout and similar, Soylent Green, and possibly The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress).  The standout to me is TAS Correspondent - TAS wants the PCs to write articles on their travels, at 5000 Cr a pop.  If this isn't the most cunning scheme to get players to write campaign journals incentivized with in-game currency, then I'm a scruffy nerf herder.  Totally seeing use next game, and hey, journalist characters are suddenly a bit more useful.  An excellent chapter, even if some of the ones towards the end get a bit silly (Game Designer for Lizard Games, paid .005 Cr per word, with complications 1 through 6 being "Deadlines"?  Curious...).

Scavenging: Another short drifter chapter, with rules for exploring dead / ruined things and prying up whatever isn't nailed down.  The "deep-space hulk" situation came up in-campaign, but the guidance is pretty much exactly what I did anyways.  Also a kind of post-apoc feel from the 'exploring ruined worlds' section - could be useful for running a game of that kind.

Gambling: Hm...  looks like my handwaved gambling rules from last campaign were a bit lenient.  Kind of makes sense; participating in high-stakes, world-class poker tournaments does require a bit of reputation and seed money.  Reasonable rules for resolving games of chance, including some options for player action (cheat, bluff, and use psionics), and then a list of a couple fictional games and some space-age cons / swindles.

Lost Worlds: On the source of barbarians.  One page of text discussing different reasons worlds are technologically backwards in a science-fiction universe, a page of equipment, rules for gaining technological familiarity, and adventure ideas for lost worlds.  The equipment looks kind of questionable...  I like the addition of a "Melee (Spear)" range class, but really don't buy that light maces should have higher heft than heavy maces, nor that morningstars should necessarily do equivalent damage to broadswords.  And what is up with these shield rules...  ?  Aren't shields just supposed to provide a bonus to parrying?

Conclusions: Overall, a pretty damn good book.  The organizations, piracy, heists, and smuggling rules were all things that I could very much have used in my last campaign, and probably in future campaigns (given my players and their tendencies...).  As I was reading, I kept going "Damn, could've used that last time."  Overall well-edited, and things looked pretty well thought-out for the most part (except painkillers, the weirdness in the barbarian weapons, and the significantly higher survival DCs on the new careers).  A significant increase in quality from Mercenary, the other MgT supplement that I own, which really put me off from buying more of their books.  There were a few disappointing sections, but overall, I give it a 4/5 for content, especially for pdf prices.

I did, however, locate several editing errors (Investifate in the Enforcer table on page 13, Vaganbond on page 25, Bandit instead of Shaman on the Barbarian table on page 29) in the Careers section, as well as a few in the Equipment (Smartrope Str 8 listed as +1 DM, should be +0) and Smuggling (Note on Starport Security table referencing Page 70 should reference Page 74) sections.  The art quality was pretty decent / up to snuff, but not fantastic either.  The pieces that really stuck out at me were the Barbarian career art, the Customs Patrol Cutter art, and some Vargr pirates in manacles in the law enforcement section.  I'm significantly disappointed with the quality of the career art (with the exception of Barbarian).  The three-man montages for the Careers take up a lot of page space, are very 'busy', and it's sometimes unclear which part maps to which specialty within the career (Random lady with a gun in the pirate art, I'm looking at you).  Unfortunately, this seems to be the way Mongoose is going with career art for the supplements.  Between the lack of bookmarks, editing errors in careers, and meh art, I'm torn between a 2/5 and a 3/5 for production value (I've seen much worse, but I'm disappointed that as established a company as Mongoose is making these kind of 'rookie' mistakes).  Overall, though, I'm pretty pleased with this purchase.  If Scoundrel is indicative of the quality in current Mongoose Traveller products, I may have to pick up a few more in the near future.

High Points: Piracy, smuggling, heists, rogue events.
Low Points: Lack of bookmarks, a few editing issues, careers chapter in general, belt mining, painkillers.

1 comment:

Tim Vaughan said...

Sounds intriguing. I look forward to testing it in the field.