Friday, March 2, 2012

Mongoose Traveller - Campaign Guide Review

A referee's essential lifeline?


I picked up a copy of Supplement 9 - Campaign Guide during RPGNow's GM's Day sale at the beginning of March for 25% off.  I'm really quite dissatisfied (to put it mildly) with the product, even at that price.  Normally I would avoid double-posting in one day, but The People Must Know!

The editing is just...  godawful.  "phenomenona"?  "mercanry"?  Really?  Jesus christ.  Mispluralization of Vargr and Aslan to "Vargrs" and "Aslans".  "Defendable" is not a word.  "Under its civilized veneer lays..." is clearly wrong.  "Instil" in place of "install".  "Marines in battle dresses" is a slap in the face to those familiar with the best armor in Traveller, called battle dress.  "Legendry".  NPC typo'd to "NPO".  The hell is a "necronumnum"?  Apparently a form of infectious zombie (more on those later).  "Cybernically" in place of cybernetically and "dischord" instead of discord.  This is all less than a quarter of the way through the book, and it doesn't get any better.  I'm willing to let some things slide as possibly British spellings (defence, offence, worshipped, armour, metre, etc), but I have my browser's spellchecker set to British and all of those are still showing up in red.  Whoever was nominally the editor of this book didn't even make a cursory pass with a spellchecker, and it shows.  That's completely unacceptable from an established company like Mongoose.

It's not just grammar and spelling, either.  Some of the tables have duplicates of the same entry on them (the Civil Unrest table on page 10, for example).  Some of the tables from chapter 1 are duplicated wholesale on page 169 for no apparent reason.  A good number of the tables are unlabeled or unclearly labeled, which sometimes leaves the reader guessing which nearby event they're supposed to go with.  This is especially problematic when the table comes before the event's description, or there are multiple tables on the same page (and that's true of many pages).  The "Using the Urban Random Encounters Table" sidebar is repeated, too.  Some chapters or other sections open with quotes from various modern pop culture sources.  Some of these quotes are also repeated or re-used between headings.  This is quite odd, and poor form.  The selection of quotes is likewise uninspiring.  I guess I should chalk up repeated use of lyrics from "Teddy Bears' Picnic" to the British culture aspect too...  but for fuck's sake, they could've found something more science fiction relevant.

Finally, content.  Yes, some of these tables could be used to generate hooks.  I would hesitate to actually use most of them during play, since many rely on very particular circumstances.  For example, the Accident table on page 9 has entries requiring the players to be on the streets of a city, or up in a skyscraper, or on a boat or coastline.  Since these cannot possibly all be true at once, rolling on this table during play is quite likely to generate an outcome which doesn't match the situation the players find themselves in, in which case you either end up re-rolling until you get something useful, or choosing by hand, or forcing the players into a particular setting in order for them to then suffer a calamity there.  None of these options sound appealing.

Many of the table entries completely disregard the capabilities of the characters.  Consider the following: "You found an injured kitten and spent a week nursing it back to health. Roll 1d6.  1–4: The kitten has made a full recovery, gain a cat.  5–6: The kitten died despite your best efforts."  Doesn't matter if you have Animals (Veterinary) 4, Edu 15, a pile of TL15 medical supplies, and a million credits to throw at the problem: any kitten you find has a 1 in 3 chance of dying.  Likewise, "You ignored a red light and ran over a boy who was crossing the road. The boy was killed on the spot. The accident was witnessed by the boy’s preteen sister."  You could be a professional driver with Drive 4, Dex 15, and a neural jack to your intelligent vehicle (hell, or on a world where cars drive themselves and you cannot possibly run a 'red light', if such a thing still exists), and it would make no difference; you still have as good a chance as any other character of running down some pedestrians.

The author is also evidently unfamiliar with how jump works in Traveller.  From page 4: "Jump travel effectively cuts the Player Characters off from the rest of the universe for 1–6 weeks."  Emphasis mine.  Contrast with the actual rules from page 141 of the Mongoose Core: "Regardless of how far the ship Jumps, it always stays in Jump Space for roughly one week (148+6d6 hours)."  Hmmm...  those don't look quite the same to me...  Upon further, consideration, though, this makes some sense.  While checking the inside cover, I was at first surprised to see that there were no playtesters in the credits.  That's...  mighty unusual.  It does, however, explain how this kind of rules error could have made it into the book.

There are thematic issues too, though.  Zombies.  So many zombies.  I swear, under these rules, you couldn't spend three months in a city of any reasonable size without a zombie outbreak.  Speaking of which, a hefty majority of the content here seems to be focused on "the city".  City generation rules, city events, things like that.  This is a gap in Mongoose's coverage of Traveller to date, and arguably the best part of the book (except maybe the maps, which, being images, were a welcome break from the deluge of spelling errors).

Many of the events remind me a lot more of Farscape-style craziness than Firefly.  I guess that's OK with some people, but that's not really what I think I want in my Traveller, and I'm not a hard-core OTU guy, so I imagine some of these things would have the Old Guard frothing with rage.  It's all about the immortality-causing radiation and invading ancient aliens and colossal aliens that live in vacuum and mind control worms and hull-eating viruses and zombie- (and/or mutant)-producing mad scientists and terrible abominations deep beneath the earth and rips in space-time.  Oh, and did I mention that "fantastical creatures" like goblins and dragons are a possible random encounter result?  Well, let's just say that Traveller now has official stats for them; saves me the trouble for Fantasy Traveller, I suppose.  The section on 'campaign generation' is relatively coherent, but fairly standard DMG-type stuff, and then at the end of it there's a real gem of editing: "The realist campaign is more suitable for mature groups interested in exploring complex subjects through the media of RPAGE."  That one took me a while to parse.

In summary: this is one of the worst RPG books I have ever had the displeasure of reading.  The production value is right down there with Blight Magic (which, while quite decent mechanically, had absolutely awful art.  Unavailable in pdf, and the publisher, Mystic Eye Games, has since gone out of business).  The editing made even skimming the book downright painful, the content is extremely questionable within most Traveller universes, and even when they set out to produce useful rules, they fuck it up.  For example, they provide rules for crime rates in cities on the standard Traveller hex-scale from 0 to 15ish.  OK, that sounds like a good idea.  Then, when actually making d66 rolls to see whether the PCs are victims of a crime, that rating has no effect on the roll.  Neither does PC Streetwise skill, nor ability scores.  This roll is, however, modified by a number of other factors including "bears marks of popular religion", "carries a purse or briefcase", and (my favorite for political incorrectness) "immodestly dressed."  Really, guys?  Really?  And then, if you do manage to decipher the haze of inane modifiers, you realize that this is something you're supposed to roll once a month for each 'flavor' of crime listed on the next page.  OK...  but that list includes the following:
Corruption: Apply this DM to all skill checks made to bribe
policemen and city officials. Apply negative DM to attempts
made to cause the police to actually do its job.
Investigation: Percent of successful investigations.
What in the nine hells?  There are so many things wrong here that it's insane.  There's no system for converting the d66 roll for whether or not crimes occur into a DM for Corruption.  Note the grammatical error in "cause the police to actually do its job"; most native speakers of english would probably use "their" there.  The whole construction of that sentence is just off.  Finally, "Percent of successful investigations"?  There's a skill for that, and certainly no place in a d6-only system for percentage rolls.  Nor is there any compelling reason for the percentage of successful investigations to be something you roll for when rolling for crimes committed against the PCs; that's a function of Law Level checks, from Core page 173-4.  What the hell was the author thinking?

Another of my favorites is the "You missed last session; what happened to your PC?" table, which contains such wonderful party-splitters as "You were tricked into enlisting in the Imperial Navy. The ship leaves tomorrow. Deserters will be shot." and "You wake up on a planet many parsecs away. The last thing you remember is a strange man in a pub asking you if you would like to see a magic trick." The rules for gaining and losing weight are also a standout in terms of terribleness, including a convenient formula for your character's body mass index and penalties to physical stats for being overweight.  I honestly wish I could say I was kidding about this crap, but I swear on my dice, I am not.

What really gets me is that usually I quite like books full of random tables.  Ultimate Toolbox is pretty nice, for example.   I was expecting things more like the Mongoose Core random tables for creature generation, subsector generation, and mission / patron generation; coherent, well-thought-out subsystems driven by tables.  The tables in this one aren't even particularly good for random hooks, and well-thought-out subsystems are completely out of the question.  See, I'm of the school of thought that a random table is actually a probabilistic description of the state of the gameworld (yeah, yeah, sue me for false advertising on the gamist-simulationist axis).  Mongoose Core's tables satisfy this simulation requirement - they function descriptively for common patterns in xenobiology, or star formation and colonization patterns, or what kind of jobs people want done by drifting spacers.  It took me a while to come up with what kind of setting the tables in the Campaign Guide would describe, but I did eventually find one: Futurama.  The party stumbles upon a village where radiation has made everyone immortal.  Fry goes "Wait, that's not how radiation works," the Professor explains the bogus future-science in an amusing way, Bender cracks a joke about pathetic meatbags, and they go back to helping the marines in immodest battle dresses fight off the zombie dragons.  If you treat every typo and crazy result as potential comedy gold, this book is a goldmine.  If not...  well, then it's a steaming pile of mongoose feces.

Unequivocally, a 1/5 rating for this book in all regards.  No playtesting was done (or it if was, the playtesters were omitted from the credits), the editor didn't edit, the author lacks any apparent depth of understanding of Traveller, and is not terribly skilled as spelling and grammar (his website confirms this suspicion, and also reveals that he was the author of the problematic Robots supplement, as well as the "D&D With Kids" articles, which I recall creating a shitstorm of outrage when they were first released.  Funny, though, that it candidly admits that none of his publications make any sense).  I regret that I do not have fewer marks to give, and that I spent $15 on this book, which I can hardly resell since it's a pdf.  Better than if I had bought it in paper for $35, I suppose...  I can only hope that my dollars did not die in vain, and that I might warn others away from this most terrible product.

17 comments:

  1. Thanks for this review. I had been looking forward to this product. But now, not so much.

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    1. Sorry to disappoint; I was quite looking forward to it too, and was really upset that it was awful. It feels like it was a terrible rush job.

      (Also, hey, you were hdan from the Starmada forums! Pleased to meet you again.)

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    2. Yes I was. I guess it's not surprising that people with similar hobby interests wind up in the same places. :)

      The last MgT book I got that disappointed me was Animal Encounters.

      At first it didn't seem too bad, maybe just a little quirky and in need of some "post processing" before use. But then I realized that ALL of the encounter tables were exactly the same, just adjusted (using the formulas given elsewhere in the book) for the different environments.

      I had originally cut them slack on the tables' lack of critical data like animal size, speed and skills (what's the melee skill on that thing attacking you? Who knows, make something up) due to the extensive number of tables, but once I discovered that they were all the same table, that slack went away.

      I think the problem with AE was that they really just had an S&P article or two, but decided to try to combine the RPG animal system and Random Critter systems into one Frankensteinian mess, and then generate enough filler pages to make it into an actual book.

      But I digress. :)

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    3. Hmmm... I will have to remember to stay away from Animal Encounters, then. I had kind of considered it for help generating random tables, but I suppose not. Thanks for the data!

      Yeah, some of the CG felt oddly filled; the extra pages and extra sidebars in particular. A lot of pages had a hefty amount of whitespace on the bottoms, too. Just odd. It did seem to be too much material for an S&P article, though... if only it had been better done.

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  2. Thanks for the detailed review. I think you're the first on the net to review this guide. I was considering this guide to see if I could play traveller solo, but it just sounds to random. Maybe it might work for a generic solo scifi campaign?

    How do you think Ulitimate Toolbox could be used for a solo campaign - generating encounters and a coherent a narrative in a sci fi type of game?

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    1. It might work for solo generic sci-fi. Toolbox would be tricky for sci-fi, I think... Upon further research, I found that the pdf I thought was Ultimate is actually just Toolbox; looks like I cheaped out on that one. Since all the stats are in d20 terms for fantasy critters, using those for Traveller would be tricky. The value of the non-statistical bits comes from the minor details which can be tricky to improvise for a DM; stuff like "The castle's 20-foot high curtain walls are an orangish color, and in poor repair". Those details wouldn't necessarily carry over well into a sci-fi setting.

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  3. Ouch! That's a harsh review. But probably accurate.

    If you remember, Mongoose had to redo 760 Patrons because they really wrote 760 plot hooks and didn't understand the concept of Patrons.

    On the other hand, 'Defendable' is a word (I looked it up), I've seen 'dischord' spelled both ways, and battle dresses would be Kilts, of course.

    :^)

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    1. Yeah, I was reminded strongly of 760 as well. Got luckier there; paged through it at my FLGS and went "That's nothing like the old 76 Patrons!". It was even stranger because the patrons in the Core were non-terrible (that I recall; it's been a while since I read them)...

      Interesting; I've only ever seen defensible, but Meriam Webster has it. I wonder if defendable is a recent addition to the language... Dischord isn't showing up in any reputable online dictionary, though. And if you ever find a kilt that stops bullets, grants +Str and Dex, and has an environmental seal, please let me know! :P I've been considering kilt-wearing, and that would fit the bill nicely.

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    2. I'm assuming the AstroKilt (VACCKilt?) serves a similar function as Ladies ChainMail does in D&D artwork.

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    3. It's only fair, really.

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  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  5. Hey,

    I am a part-time Traveller author and I've written for Mongoose.

    Your comments seem a bit harsh in somerespects, though they don't hurt me none. I can take it- if I couldn't, I wouldn't write gaming books for hordes of Fanboys (mostly male, unlike me) who have little to do other than sit at home and criticize the work of others.

    This is just truth, I swear I'm not trying to flame in any way- besides, my work for Mongoose is very, very sparse, and the things you *seem* to be complaining about (which I realize may NOT actually be complaints- it is hard to tell in print, where there's no tone of voice to characterize the statements, so allow my tone here to be VERY VERY soft, despite the
    occasional capslocked word or phrase- no flame intended, honestly).

    As I said, none of the complaints deal with my work at all, I am NOT offended.
    That being said, much of what you are griping about here seems to be (please correct me if I'm wrong) the essence, the core, if you will, of the "OLD" (diehards would say, 'original') Traveller essence which was *not* present in the past few editions. but has been - due to the incessant stream of complaints interspersed with periods of intense begging by both
    fanboys and even supported by the occasional -girl like myself- clamoured for ever since the
    "realistic-I-Zation" of the game that began with the release of Mega-Traveller in the early
    '90s, continued with abysmal failure (judged so by the GOP-beloved 'free market', not by I) of TNE, and while the re-simple-i-zation of T4 did not go unnoticed, did, however, very little
    to restore that "simple" feeling of the original game.

    Even though I wrote for T20, I will say little about it here b/c I felt d20 at the time with guns was pretty much unplayable- and this was due to no fault whatsoever on the part of my
    friend Martin D. or his coauthors- it was the nature of d20-system, which is only (or perhaps
    'best' is the preferred term here) IMHO, suited for heroic-type RPG's where the PCs are indomitable-types. This- and this is again NOT the fault of T20's creators, I believe that they did an AWESOME job with what they had to work with- but this isn't really the way the Traveller we grew up with should work.

    No offense, but from your comments, you seem to be a longtime fan. However, this particular review is forcing me to wonder--Have you ever played Original (LBB) Traveller? If so, when and for how long (if you don't mind me asking)?

    The "slowness" and the "old" characters that- and forgive me if I misconstrue you here- you
    *seem* to be complaining about are a staple of this game, and have been so from the beginning.
    In short, other editions took that out, and Mongoosse sought, after much clamoring from the
    likes of you and I, to put it back in.

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    1. Hmm... interesting! I must admit that I have not played the vast majority of Traveller editions, including the LBBs. I started with T20, actually (and so am really quite curious as to what you wrote for it), and then moved to Mongoose, though I have read some of the LBB material. Thus, you provide me with a good bit of historical context with which I'm actually rather unfamiliar, but I'm also a little confused with what you perceive to be my main point of complaint. I think what it really boils down to for me is that in MgT and T20, from reading the books, I perceive a game universe which works just like ours except for jump travel and psionics, and the ways those work are reasonably well-defined by the rules. If that's what you mean by "oldness", then yes, I'm quite in favor of it, despite having basically no idea that it was something which varied across editions. Likewise, that is something which the Campaign Guide throws out the window entirely; the universe described by the CG seems at the very least inscrutable, and quite possibly inconsistent. And again, sue my for a simulationist, but scrutability and consistency are key things that I like in my games, especially Traveller.

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  6. The game-as it always has- requires a lot of improv on the ref's part, as well as a bit of extrapolation. It's always been like this.

    For example, arond 1980, some unknown DnD robot that worked for TSR and GG wrote a review complaining about the weaponry in Book 4 Mercenary. He whined that (almost a direct quote) "there are bizarre mostrosities like the plasma rifle and gauss pistol while there is no laser pistol in the weapon tables to be found."

    Loren Wiseman swooped in adeptly and responded (this isn't exactly what he said, my memory is shot, but it's pretty close):, "we have given you the tools to make whatever kind of weapon or armor or starship you want, you just have to do a bit of extrapolating." He proceeded, then, to tell this gawky kid how to build his beloved laser pistol using Traveller rules, which, for things like that, were based on well-proven classical mechanics. He then calmly reminded this naysayer of the inverse-square law, which would render his beloved streamlined laser pistol a huge monstrosity that would basically need to be plugged into a starship power plant or an antimatter PP of TL 16+.

    But the rules were ALL there, just not spelled out. They are there in Mongoose as they were in the original, and still are in T5. You don't need to be a scientist or a physicist or even so inclined to use them, either.

    I must sign off due to time constraints, but if there is any piece of equipment or any idea one feels is missing from Mongoose Traveller, please contact me via this post and I will be happy to point you in the right direction.

    -CPP

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    1. Your anecdote reminds me strongly of Guns Guns Guns. While interesting, the calculus involved in calculating d20 range increments proved... off-putting. And then I realized I could just make things up, and things would still work pretty well.

      Also, I doubt much in the way of firearms is missing after the CSC; while I do not have it, I have heard it was rather complete in that department. I did end up homebrewing a few 'missing' modern firearms classes here and here since I didn't really want to spring for the CSC.

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  7. In the golden 'days of yore,' if you will, I believe it not incorrect to say that Loren Wiseman, as the editor-in-chief of the JTAS (as he still is, I believe, for SJ Games, who owns the license for that fanzine now) was the "Voice" of Traveller. He would be so now as well, I feel, except that there are so many editions of the game both past-and-present it would be all but impossible to identify any one of them as the "Real" Traveller.

    Disclaimer: The above statement does NOT apply to any work by Marc Miller, past and present of course. ANY work at all by Marc and his company (far future enterprises, url posted below after this brief plug). All Marc Miller reprints, and the not-as-of-yet on paper but boldly available as a PDF on CDROM- not Download- true '80s style gaming, where your hot little hands get a physical item with real mass in it instead of a fancy eye-pleasing but ultimately nonexistant electronic spectre that vibrates in and out of our spacetime continuum at the quantum whims of the spooky-action-both-upclose and at-a-distance current of nearly but not quite massless negatively charged particles, (only measureable by an absurdly unit of quanta esoterically referred to as "Planck Spacetime" and that although I'm a democrat, I'd rather see a tree die for the paper than give real money for something that clearly doesn't exist in this continuum unless (as most companies would have it, and will have, if they get their way) unless I spend another ton of cash on printer ink and real paper....

    Dern... lost muhtraneuthawt...

    Allow me to rephrase simply: At FarFuture.net, when you pay, you actually get a physical item (You get something with protons and neutrons, which account for almost all the mass in this universe, except for of course the mysterious Dark Matter) true 80s style, while these days, with most forms of gaming you get nothing but a wavefunction of all-but-massless probabilities that if you could touch them would shock the bejeezus out of you!!!

    Anyway, true to my word, just in case no one reading this knows, Real Traveller is available in its current (5th) incarnation, along with the 4th and original, at http://www.farfuture.net/.

    Anyway, to continue:
    The youngest member of a party we ever played with was 32, and all the PC-creation was done either at home by the players themselves or via special individual 1 on 1 sessions which included roleplaying and sometimes even a bit of light combat.

    Traveller is NOT designed for a single GM to guide a large party through character creation a la DnD. In fact, the DnD model must be dispensed with entirely in order to play Travller, and further, IMHO this game is thoroughly unsuitable for large parties. I think that 5 is the largest party that should EVER be played in a Mongoose or Original Traveller game. Otherwise, some will go home feeling unsatisfied.

    My Traveller games and my Call of Cthulhu games are very similar in structure. Obviously, in style, they are NOTHING alike, but in modern Traveller games, I believe that, generally speaking, he party should be small, even 1 player and 1 GM(Ref) makes for a great game if the Ref knows what she is doing- the game should be built on the accomplishment of tasks that start small and build up to the heroically impressive.

    -CPP

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    1. Electronic is mighty convenient for me, since I move twice a year and don't usually play a single system for more than a few months at a stretch. The quantum-nature doesn't bother me much; keeping backups is easier than keeping extra books around, and if your players have laptops you can even parallelize rule lookup duties. But to each their own.

      On chargen: That seems a fair assertion (that sitting down for a chargen session is a Bad Idea). It was helpful for teaching how chargen worked the first time we played, though. And honestly, even with five players we had people going home unsatisfied in the last campaign. Four was infinitely better. And yeah, I think I actually did run 1-on-1 MgT with my brother once; it was not bad, but certainly could've been better (my first time GMing MgT).

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