Wednesday, October 24, 2012

More Thoughts on How Traveller Is Supposed to Work

Well, last post along these lines kicked off good discussion with the roommate last night.  There were kind of two main threads that I recall from our discussion:

First - one issue with Traveller is that money is advancement.  Skills grow really slowly, but money can buy cybernetics and combat armor and whatnot, so that's usually how characters improve over the course of the game.  When characters are strapped for cash, as my last post posited that they should be, suddenly advancement grinds to a halt.  So there was some debate over how to preserve advancement while keeping money tight.  The best we could come up with was something like the Mercenary ticket support system, where you get a job from a patron and maybe it comes with some gear.  Of course, if you're hard up enough for cash, you might try to sell the gear, but depending on the patron it might be stolen, hot, illegally salvaged, or otherwise unsalable, in which case it would probably stick.

This leads nicely into the general loot distribution and accountability problem, too.  One thing about RPGs which is usually a little weird is that they're super-egalitarian, even in situations that usually aren't in real life.  Pseudo-nautical situations, for example, usually entail a clear chain of command.  Looking at the Traveller rules, it certainly seems possible for one guy to be The Captain and everyone else to be crew.  There are pay rates for the various shipboard functions, and if you have the right skills you can stack up a pretty nice salary and you also don't have to worry about keeping the ship's finances in order.  If the captain can't make the loan, that's his problem.  If he can't make payroll, that's everybody's problem.  In any case, if you go that route, then most of the group gets a nice flat 'character advancement budget' per month, and it's just the Captain who has to go without advancement.  Ideally, though, the Captain is the most experienced character in keeping with trope, and maybe doesn't need it.

The final thought was on iteration.  Sometimes the ship gets impounded and the guy in charge goes to jail (because when things go south, it's always the Captain's ass on the line) and the rest of the crew is left dirtside with just their duffel bags going "Well...  crud."  But this situation provides a wonderful explanation for rules like low-paying planetside jobs and patrons that don't require starships and PCs getting passage tickets during character generation and other such things that just never made sense to me before.  And after you get tired of playing in the mud, and you put together enough cash to make a down payment (or you do something dumb enough that you really need to get off-world in a hurry), someone steps up to be the new Captain.  And the old Captain's player brings in a new PC and the cycle begins anew...

Lando Calrissian - Han's player's backup character

Another handy perk of iteration in this fashion is that it lets you change ships!  If you were making really good money but got caught, maybe you try for a better ship because you think you can make bank if you can just outrun or outgun the authorities.  And if you got impounded because you missed a payment, well, maybe you go for a smaller ship that you can actually make the payment on next time...  But in any case, this captaincy rollover also provides an opportunity to play around with ship design and loadouts, which is normally not feasible in a game where you get one ship and stick with it forever, because starship components are ridiculously expensive.  Given the fun (some would say addictive) nature of Traveller ship design, I feel like the designers might have anticipated this and designed for it...

The final advantage of this iterative cycle is that it lets you change campaign flavors.  You could, as a group, go "Uh, well, I guess we're done trading since the entire surviving portion of the party is ex-marines...  Let's start a mercenary company and buy passage to the nearest warzone!  My character has this cousin who's a mercenary administrator..."  Or you join the mob, or the Ine Givar, or the Scouts, or decide to go belt-mining, or do any number of other things that weren't on the agenda before.  Effectively, each change of command is a chance to change the structure of the campaign, with the advantage of continuity of characters and setting.

So yeah, the more I look at it, the more I feel like this is how Traveller is supposed to run.  Maybe I actually will do this next semester...


Library Bob said...

I like your thoughts about iteration and keeping the campaign rolling when characters die or go to jail. And yes, lack of money is often a motivation for taking 'jobs'. But there is nothing that says you have to have a starship with a loan, or be that concerned with cash. The classic Sci-Fi from which Traveller was born did not often concern characters trying to get rich.
I disagree with your interpretation of experience in Traveller. I've not played the Mongoose version, only Classic, so I don't know how it is addressed in MgT, but in CT, experience is almost entirely in the realm of the players, not the characters. Advancement or leveling is not discussed as a goal. I wrote a piece on my blog about this different approach.

Library Bob

John said...

Very fair. I agree that the literary sources focus elsewhere, but still think that if you look at the composition of the rules as describing the focus of the game, then money is supposed to matter. Perhaps it is more that that is just the flavor of game which I desire to run, though...

I'm also not finding anything I disagree with in your post, actually. Advancement in Traveller, the increase of a character's capabilities, is as you say primarily through the acquisition of "money, power, and authority", and these are decoupled from any notion of character experience. They are linked to character experience only in that a character who has been in play longer has had more opportunities to achieve these things. But I would argue that characters do advance through gear, because acquiring better gear expands their capabilities. When you buy higher TL armor, it weighs less and you can carry more of other things, which lets you perform more functions. When you buy a NAS, suddenly you can perform tasks which were previously not possible. In this sense, money serves a similar purpose to experience in D&D, in that it permits you to gain more 'powers'. However, it does so in a manner which has a hard ceiling based on the gear available in the setting and encumbrance, and it does so in a manner which is consistently in and of the game-world, avoiding the meta-gaming inherent in XP-based systems. It's also pretty rare for 'upgrades' in MgT to provide DMs, which makes keeping things challenging pretty easy. About the only two pieces of Problem Gear I can think of are military-grade combat armor / battle dress and wafer jacks, and those are both subject to social stigma in-universe. I guess what I'm getting at ultimately is that while getting better gear is an in-universe phenomenon and very much subject to human limits, it does expand the capabilities of characters, and to call it other than advancement in a discussion of the game from outside the universe is erroneous.

Really, though, the reason I brought up advancement at all is that my players are D&D players at heart. One thing that they found somewhat frustrating in Traveller before was the lack of perceived increase in character abilities. This mention of advancement, then, serves primarily to illustrate to them that yes, even in a resource-strapped environment, there are ways of 'making your character better', should you so choose. That's just one of the things I have to talk about to get the people I play with to play with me :P