Friday, March 30, 2012

A Short History of Tim's Campaign World, Mondial

Tim's Trailblazer campaign has recently resumed, and we've picked up two new players from the Traveller game.  They've been...  somewhat confused, though.  Here's a brief summary of everything we (the players) know about Tim's world (I'll add a map if and when I can get a scan of Tim's paper map).

Timeline (dated YBN - Years Before Now):

>5000 YBN - The Chromata, a group of five dangerous artifacts, are created.  We have one of them - Mavrilith the Spelldrinker, a black blade.  Also known are a white shield (Breath of the Dead), blue suit of mail (don't remember name, illusion properties), green something (the Gentle Master - enchantment of some kind), and red something (the Mind's Anchor or something similar).  Each is, at the present time, guarded by a dragon of the same color, except for black and white.  We slew the black dragon and took the black Chromata, and the white shield is known to be in the hands of the enemy (more on him later).  Art objects recovered from the hoard of the black guardian predate recorded history, but also bear the likenesses of forgotten human emperors; this gives rise to speculation that the chromata are of human origin, and lays to rest earlier theories that they might be draconic in origin (which stemmed primarily from the fact that their guardians were dragons).

~5000 YBN - The Elf-Gnome War.  High elven masters of enchantment vs gnomish masters of illusion.  Both civilizations effectively destroyed during a prolonged war of tricks and deception.  The region of unstable magic known as the Impasse is created as a last gnomish superweapon illusion.  It's a funky place.

5000 > x > 40 - Other civilizations develop.  City State of Dehlia founded by humans.  Kathras Deep founded by dwarves.  Araduin Hills settled by halflings.  Duskvale, Malas Farngrey, and Mekbah founded by humans.  Lizardman empire of Sol Magnar founded in the southern deserts (believed to have been founded earlier than these others, as they possessed data on the chromata in their libraries).

~30-40 YBN - The Goblin Wars.  Goblins invade the settled southlands from the Nordham Reaches; dwarves largely repulse them from their territory.  Halfling homeland of Araduin Hills burns, primary population center moved to fortified Hollowtown of Three Rivers.  The involvement of the humans of the City-State of Dehlia is uncatalogued, but there's a reason the city has some pretty serious walls, I suspect...

~20 YBN - Kathras Deep burned by Anaximath the Red Terror, who sets up a lair there.  Fjolkir goes mad, lives out in the woods.

~5 YBN - Gygas the Black crushes the town of Duskvale, sets up a lair there with his brood.

~1-2 YBN - Information on the Chromata surfaces.  The Black 13, a splinter cabal of gnomes who survived the war outside the Impasse, becomes aware of an elven artifact of significant power.  They use their ties with Malakax University of Dehlia to send Ythir, a human illusionist, to go get it for them.  Ythir gathers a band of companions including Qual, a surviving (but largely clueless) high elf, and retrieves the artifact.  Upon its return to the Black 13, it devours one of them and transforms into the High Elf King, kills several more, laughs maniacally, and teleports to parts unknown.  Ythir is contacted by Two of the Black 13 and told of the Chromata; he makes their acquisition his goal (I believe in order to fight the elf king...  not really sure though).  This is also the first time that rumor of the chromata appears, historically; there is speculation about a mysterious force implementing a time delay of some sort on the dissemination of this information.  For more information, see this post.

~0.06 YBN - Three Fists of Dehlia form. Two, alias Adam the Bard, creates several faux Rods of Wonder and uses them to erase the memories of several parties of adventurers.  He sends these parties, each working under the name The Fists of Dehlia, after the chromata.  Fists 1, comprised of Barradin Took, Fjolkir the Beardless, Somak the Druid, and Alonso the Thief slay Gygas, then manage to defeat the Rod and Two's influence, claiming the black chromata for themselves.  Ythir appears and tries to take it from them, but is likewise defeated (but permitted to live).  Alonso disappears mysteriously, and Somak sacrifices his life to close a portal to hell after regaining his memories.  Fists 2, comprised of the Mighty Shin-Yao, Karath the Quiet, and several unknown (deceased) others, slays the white guardian, but are subsequently defeated by Two / Adam; the white chromata falls into his hands.  The target, composition, and success or failure of Fists 3 is unknown.

0 YBN - Free Fists of Dehlia formed when Barradin, Fjolkir, Shin-Yao, and Karath meet by happenstance in Malas Farngrey, City of Temples, and decide to join forces.  They choose the green dragon of Helheim Woods, believed to guard the green chromata, as their next target.  The Elf King is discovered to have taken control of the City of Dehlia, and is believed to be using mind control magics on its population (due to reports of willing cooperation of criminal elements with the new regime).

So that's the timeline we're working with...  Here's a list of PC-threat dangerous NPCs expected to recur:

Ythir the Illusionist - He's after the chromata, and probably has some kind of devious master plan.  Thanks, Jared.  Illusionist 9 when last a PC; when last encountered by PCs, most potent traditional spell (ie, not Tim handwaving) witnessed was Resilient Sphere, so no clear increase in power.  Expect this to be remedied when next we meet him.

Adam / Two - Gnome bard / illusionist or something...  Appears to have distributed copies of himself via the Rods of Brainfuck.  Also has the capability to erase and modify memory.  Believed to have two 'copies' on the loose; one has the white shield taken from Fists 2, the other is expected to be with Fists 3.  As with all distributed systems, I expect he has at least one more backup somewhere...

The Elf King - Capabilities largely unknown, but disintegration and teleport suggest spellcasting of >= 11th arcane caster level.  And since it was technically a quickened split ray disintegrate, possibly much, much higher...

Hethras the Vampire - Vampire Monk; energy drain unarmed strikes urrrgh...  He knows we have the black chromata.  Combat opportunist; has aided us previously when it was in his own interests, but has also showed up at inopportune times to try to kill us and take Mavrilith.  Expect him to show up for bossfights and possibly backstab us.

Somar the Savage - Somak's half-brother, an orc barbarian / druid chieftain (have witnessed Wild Shape + Rage, so we know he's at least Druid 5 and Bbn 1).  Responsible for the burning of Druidtown, possibly with aid from Ythir (last known possessor of the Black Lotus Dagger, which Somar used during his assault).

Seche Peret - Dehlian halfling mob boss.  Formerly a (dangerous) patron of sorts of Aluna the Sorceress (believed to have been a member of Fists 2; her last stated objective was to acquire the white chromata.  Possibly deceased, possibly future ally.  She and Barradin would get along splendidly), now believed mind-controlled by Elf King.

Asmir the Assassin - Last known to be hunting Ythir; expected to reappear, but unknown whether as an ally or an enemy.  Rogue 5 / Assassin 4 when last a PC.  Master of disguise; could be anyone we meet.

Anaximath - Not technically a recurring hostile, but expect to fight her.  Mature Adult or stronger red dragon.  's gonna be a good one.

Mavrilith - Come on guys, it's a sentient black sword that thirsts after all magic.  How can this possibly not come back to bite us in the ass at some point?

Possible high-power NPC allies (mostly good-ish aligned PCs from last campaign):

Qual High-Elven - High elf ranger, and last of the (known) high elves besides the Elf King.  Original creator of Qual's Feather tokens.  Unfortunately, he's forgotten a lot in his 5000 years...  Last known objective was going south across the sea in search of old elven libraries for data on Chromata.

Miranda - Dwarven paladin from the Hammer Temple of Dehlia; child of dwarven refugees from the burning of Kathras Deep.  Last known objective was to aid the Singed Brigade in the containment of Anaximath.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Dwarf Fortress and the OSR

I've been a little quiet around the blogosphere lately with reading and commenting.  There are two reasons for this.  The first and most acceptable is that there's only about a month of school left, so it's crunch time.  The second, more problematic reason is that I spent a massive chunk of the last three days playing Dwarf Fortress.  It's been a long time since I played any videogames (since I came back this semester, actually, and I didn't really play any last semester either), and DF hit me pretty hard.  It's a terrifyingly complex and detailed game with ASCII graphics, headache-inducing levels of micromanagement (or maybe that was a side effect of the graphics), no ways to win, and many, many ways to lose.

In short, it's amazing.

And in some sense, it reminds me of older versions of D&D as opposed to modern versions.  When you start playing DF, it generates a world through a simulation of geological processes, then a history of the world with a host of elven, human, dwarven, and goblin civilizations.  These then interact during the course of play.  The worlds of older editions tended to be similarly living, breathing sandboxes in contrast with modern adventure paths.  The ASCII graphics are in some sense analogous to ungridded combat; you're not exactly sure what's going on, and in some sense the details don't matter (though DF does actually simulate hit locations and anatomical injuries to a degree that would not be feasible in any tabletop game).  They may also be comparable to the stylistic choices present in many OSR products; dwarves can't be wizards in OSRIC, no halflings in ACKS, and so forth.  Micromanagement goes hand in hand with the careful resource tracking often present in old school play, as opposed to the handwaving of ammunition, rations, and torches more common these days.

But the losing is really where the parallel strikes me.

There is a tragic element present in Dwarf Fortress; you know that eventually, your fortress will fall.  Your gates will be shattered, your dwarves will die or be driven to barbarism and madness, and your works laid to waste.  And yet...  you play anyways, and you fight like mad to keep things fortified and in working order.  And when the end comes, you watch in horrified fascination as your peasants flood out to the ramparts to watch the  besieging goblins only to be perforated by crossbow bolts, or as your mines cave in, or the undead attack and animate your dead against you and your best carpenter is beaten to death by his wife's headless corpse, or your crossbowdwarves go to battle but die without firing a shot because you made them crossbows and bolts, but no quivers.  And you curse the pathing AI, or bad luck, or your own foolishness, but at the same time you celebrate, because part of the fun is watching everything burn in ways you never expected.  And then you go, "Well alrighty then.  Next time, I'm making quivers."  And you get stronger.  You learn about how the world works by losing.  This, if I understand it correctly, is closest to the OSR mode of PC death.  Sometimes you were dumb, sometimes you were unlucky, but it doesn't matter, because now you're dead.  Learn from this, and enjoy it.  Curse and laugh in the same breath.  And if you chose to die, if you went "Fuck it, the useful half of my population is dead.  Open the gates and let the goblins come!  We fight to the last dwarf!  I always did wonder how well those traps I installed in the great hall would work," and died fighting the good fight, then more power to you.

But, for now, I must swear off Dwarf Fortress.  There is code to be written, and soon!  Perhaps come summer, I will play again; I foresee many, many more hours of joyful failure to be found in DF.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Fantasy Traveller - Wilderlander

Wilderlanders are those who spend most of their time out in the woods, either by their own choice or from necessity.

Qualification: End 6+.  -1 DM per previous career.  -2 DM if 30 years of age or more.

Barbarian: You lived amongst a savage tribe or bandit clan, raiding and fighting for food and power.  Might made right, and only the strong survived.
Survival: Str 7+.  Advancement: End 5+.

Druid: You lived in perfect harmony with nature, listening to the wisdom of the trees or the waves.  You may have lived among a community of druids, as a shaman of a barbarian tribe, or alone as a hermit.  In any case, you needed sharp instincts to listen to the spirits, and often great endurance to seek out the wisest of them, who lived in the harshest climes.
Survival: Int 5+.  Advancement: End 7+.

Ranger: You were tasked by a civilized society with guarding its borders and exploring far-off lands, or perhaps you were an outlaw all-in-green.  In either case, you came to know the woods like the back of your hand, and cultivated a fearsome skill with the bow.
Survival: Int 6+.  Advancement: Dex 6+.

Personal development:
  1. +1 Str
  2. +1 Dex
  3. +1 End
  4. +1 Int
  5. Survival
  6. Navigation
Service skills:
  1. Survival
  2. Melee (Any)
  3. Missile (Any)
  4. Animals (Any) or Seafarer
  5. Navigation
  6. Athletics (Any)
Barbarian skills:
  1. Melee (Any)
  2. Survival
  3. Athletics (Any)
  4. Athletics (Any)
  5. Carouse
  6. Recon
Druid skills:
  1. Druidism
  2. Animals (Any)
  3. Survival
  4. Melee (Blunt or Unarmed)
  5. Navigation
  6. Recon
Ranger skills:
  1. Survival
  2. Melee (Any) or Missile (Any)
  3. Alchemy
  4. Navigation
  5. Recon
  6. Stealth
Barbarian ranks:
  1. Bandit -> Melee (Any) 1
  2. Raider
  3. Barbarian -> Athletics (Any) 1
  4. Wolf Brother
  5. Berserker -> Druidism 1 or +1 Str
  6. Beast-in-Man's-Flesh
Druid ranks:
  1. Awakened -> Recon 1
  2. Speaker with Bees
  3. Druid -> Druidism 1
  4. Greenspeaker
  5. Elder Druid -> Druidism 2 or +1 Int
  6. One-With-All
Ranger ranks:
  1. Hunter -> Missile (Bow) 1
  2. Outrider
  3. Ranger -> Navigation 1
  4. Explorer
  5. Master Ranger -> Stealth 1 or +1 Dex
  6. Greenshadow

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Mailbag 6: Miscellanea

games workshop bfg resources:  Yeah, GW took down all the BFG and other specialist games pdfs like...  yesterday.  I don't know why either.  I have most of the BFG pdfs, but don't have hosting; drop me a line in the comments if you want 'em.

mongoose traveller learning new skills: I guess I probably haven't really discussed this before.  Basically, learning new skills in MgT is slow, but doable.  Raising a skill from level n to level n+1 takes a number of weeks of training equal to the total of all of your skills plus n+1 (to gain a new skill at 0, treat n as -1).  Since about the only training you get happens in jump, an experienced character is like to pick up maybe 2 new skills over the course of a short campaign like the ones we play.  On the other hand, if you start the campaign with a rank newbie with a skill total of 3, you learn really damn fast, and since you get to choose your training skills (but not your skills from character generation), this also provides a character who can do exactly what you want him to be doing.  Avoids the risk of aging, too, but you lose out hard on material benefits.
As an aside, we have a houserule that if you roll snake eyes on a check with an untrained skill, it counts as a week of training.  Experiential learning, if you will.

mongoose core weight: I think this is referring to encumbrance, probably (since I don't know what the actual paper copy of the Core weighs).  The rules for it are on page 104, and I highly recommend using them.  Otherwise everyone ends up in Combat Armor with laser rifles and things go all to hell.

mongoose traveller where does the ship exit jump space?:  So, there aren't actually hard and fast rules on this.  The only guideline I know of is from page 141:
When the ship exits Jump space after an accurate Jump, it tends
to arrive close to the target world, but outside or on the verge of
the hundred-diameter limit. Inaccurate Jumps just dump the ship
somewhere in the inner system, requiring a long space flight.
 That's all there is on it.  Jump accuracy is determined on the bottom of the left-hand column on the same page.
Short version: Wherever you want them to, with the guideline that success means close and failure means far.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Fantasy Traveller - Rogue

Rogues are vagrants who lie, beg, cheat, steal, or swindle for a living.

Qualification: Dex 6+.  -1 DM per previous career.

Assassin: You worked as a murderer for hire, likely as part of a criminal organization or religious cult, or in the service of an unscrupulous noble.  Maintaining a cover identity and reaching your targets required stealth and guile, while deadly strikes and a quick escape mandated agility and speed.
Survival: Int 7+.  Advancement: Dex 5+.

Minstrel: You wandered from place to place, playing before noble audiences in exchange for food and a place to sleep.  However, such nobles are often quite protective of their daughters, and you were often forced to leave rather...  abruptly, and so mastered the arts of hiding and evading pursuit.  You depended on knowing people and ability to interact with the nobility for food, and quick thinking to get out of tough spots (plus, clever jesters are the best jesters).
Survival: Soc 5+.  Advancement: Int 7+.

Thief: You stole things.  Lots of things.  Pretty much anything that wasn't nailed down, really.  Flexibility and agility were important for going places you weren't supposed to be, and keen powers of observation for picking valuable things to steal.
Survival: Dex 6+.  Advancement: Int 6+.

Personal Development:
  1. +1 Int
  2. +1 Dex
  3. +1 Soc
  4. Gambler
  5. Jack of Trades
  6. Carouse
Service skills:
  1. Stealth
  2. Deception
  3. Streetwise
  4. Recon
  5. Melee (Rogue Weapons)
  6. Athletics (Dexterity)
Assassin skills:
  1. Stealth
  2. Deception
  3. Alchemy or Wizardry
  4. Missile Weapons (Any)
  5. Melee (Rogue Weapons)
  6. Athletics (Dexterity)
Minstrel skills:
  1. Diplomat
  2. Art (Any)
  3. Carouse
  4. Jack of Trades
  5. Melee (Any)
  6. Advocate
Thief skills:
  1. Stealth
  2. Deception
  3. Mechanic
  4. Streetwise
  5. Melee (Rogue Weapons or Unarmed)
  6. Persuade
Assassin ranks:
  1. Cutthroat -> Melee (Rogue Weapons) 1
  2. Initiate
  3. Assassin -> Stealth 1
  4. Master Assassin
  5. First Assassin -> Wizardry 1 or +1 Int
  6. Left Hand of Darkness
Minstrel ranks:
  1. Fool -> Carouse 1
  2. Performer
  3. Minstrel -> Art (Any) 1
  4. Troubadore
  5. Court Jester -> Advocate 1 or +1 Soc
  6. Virtuoso
Thief ranks:
  1. Footpad -> Streetwise 1
  2. Cutpurse
  3. Thief -> Stealth 1
  4. Burglar
  5. Master Thief -> Recon 1 or +1 Soc
  6. "Retired"

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Starmada Nova Review - First Impressions

As I mentioned on Wednesday, Starmada Nova just recently came out.  I have picked it up, perused it, and started working on a ship construction spreadsheet for it (because hey, those are handy), but I haven't managed to get in a game of it yet.  As a result, this review is necessarily incomplete, and will be supplemented by playtest reports in the future.

The game is definitely stripped-down from the Admiralty Edition.  There's a significant emphasis on the use of markers on the board, which is somewhat problematic for us, actually, since we can't very well print on cardstock with the campus printers.  Guess we'll have to tape more things to pennies.

The new firepower system is mathematically more sound than the old accuracy system, I believe - any given plus or minus one modifier to firing multiplies the effectiveness of the fire by a factor of sqrt(2), whereas previously your percent gain varied depending on where you started.  This way is tricky to figure by hand, but easily done by programs beforehand.  This also fixes the old Repeating problem.  The defenses in shipbuilding also operate on multiples of square roots of 2; this is elegant, and makes pricing easy, but again we run into logarithms in shipbuilding.  Of the new defenses, I'm rather enamored with Armor, since it's supremely reliable - you're guaranteed to negate exactly n points of damage if you buy n points of armor.  ECM and Shields are less predictable (and can be circumvented by Fire Control and Piercing, respectively), and their effectiveness declines as you take damage.

Fighters got nerfed pretty hard; there are only six fighter traits, and they don't change the values that much.  Fighter flights can also only take 2 hits.  On the plus side, they're half the SU they were in AE.  There are also guidelines for deploying them within a certain distance of their carrier, which is actually pretty nice.  Independent fighters are not supported.  Fighter movement is still after ship movement, but fighter firing is interleaved, which means you get a chance to fire point defense (or not), and may have to choose.

Strikers are gone.  Seekers are still around under the guise of drones, which have been modified similarly to fighters.  You can also build custom seeking weapons, but...  they didn't operate quite how I expected.  You launch them at a target in range, and they're placed on the board.  Next turn, they impact.  In the interim, they can be fired at - the ship they're aimed fires at them at short range, while other friendly ships use the targeted ship as the location of the weapons for purposes of arc and range.  This means that dedicated point-defense ships in the center of a group are actually workable now, which is cool.  The only thing that gets me here is the timing weirdness - if you fire a Seeking weapon at a target at close range and a target at long range, they both get hit at the same time (next turn).  I suppose this is preferable to the "striker launch of doom that you can't dodge" that happened in AE, though, and functionally models projectiles which accelerate rapidly.  Ammo weapons are still around, but they're one-shot rather than n-shot, and can't be combined with slow-firing (awww...).  They might actually be balanced this time...  remains to be seen.

A number of the new special equipments seem to have been included specifically for the SFU supplements, notably shuttles, probes, and tractor beams.  Not a huge fan of any of these...  The changes to marines are quite good, though; as I mentioned previously, deadweight defensive marines are a thing of the past.  Flares are also a nice tactical addition; they let you create hexes of difficult shooting.  They're going to be very handy for closing the range, I think.

Cloaking, unfortunately, has been nerfed really, really hard.  It now basically models Traveller's black globe generators, sans flicker.  While cloaked, your location is known.  You can't shoot, and can't be shot at, but can still take hits from mines and asteroids.  This is very disappointing to me...  I may have to start homebrewing rules for decoy cloaking in Nova (I know I've seen such a proposal for AE on the boards, but I can't find it for the like of me...), because the current cloaking system generates no hidden information at all :(.  Since there's no longer hidden plotted-order information either, this is especially sad, since hidden information adds depth.  On the plus side, it's definitely easier to manage, and should still serve beautifully as a range-closer.

And I think we might need it.  On the one hand, long range weapons are really expensive.  On the other hand, the regulation board size is 24 by 18 hexes, and range 30 weapons are now considered core-valid rather than optional. Remains to be seen, and/or houseruled away.  This is particularly concerning with the addition of the Long-Range Sensors equipment, which adds a fourth 'extreme' range band at an additional penalty to hit.  Scary stuff.

Escorts may also help close the range, though.  Line-of-sight blocking ships are in, and it should be pretty neat.  The scout ability works specifically as a counter to escorts; it lets you ignore their LOS blocking under certain circumstances.  Irksome, because it means that if the enemy fields no escorts, the points you spent on scouts are wasted (the deadweight marines problem again).  Still, some interesting possibilities to explore there.

Minefields are smaller than in AE, and can't be deployed at range.  They're going to be tricky to use.  Overthrusters got a major upgrade, though - they're now a direct clone of the Grumm pivot ability from Hammer and Claw (that's a torso twist to you BattleTech fans).  I expect it to see some use to serious effect.

Most of the optional rules aren't anything new, though the Long Shots rule is pretty neat, equipment can now be damaged in Core, and hexless play looks promising.  Emergency Thrust now inflicts a guaranteed one point of engine damage, which will likely displease Matt, but it also generates more thrust on average (x1.4 rather than x1.33 expected under AE).  Directed Damage is gone, but that's only sensible for this damage system.  Plotted Movement is still around as an option, and there are also a bunch of alternate movement systems.  Cinematic / basic, naval, and etheric return from AE, while Eldar-style Solar movement and true vector movement (which looks scary) are also included.

Not much in the way of changes to terrain...  Asteroid fields look more dangerous, inflicting an average of 1 hull hit per hex moved through.  Nebulae are gone, but Dust Clouds are still around.  The six scenarios don't appear to have changes significantly, and I've already talked about ship construction (contains logarithms, but looks about right).  Tech level is still a thing, but is set at like "X race builds their ships at TL1, end of story" rather than varying by type of thing.  The end of the book contains rules for converting Admiralty designs (which were previewed), and a conversion of the fleets from the Imperial Starmada Sourcebook.  I think that's a nice touch - while the ISS fleets are hardly the most balanced, and don't do the best job of showing off the new shinies like flares and long-range sensors, having a reasonable selection of ships included in the Core is definitely a good thing for new players compared to AE, where you'd have to either 1) find the MJ12 forums for the Bourbaki Basin and the spreadsheets, 2) grok the shipbuilding rules, or 3) drop more money for one of the fleet books before you could play a serious game.  So, while the converted ISS fleets are a hefty chunk of the pagecount, I think that on the whole their inclusion is for the better.

So, overall, looks like a good game.  Defenses are varied and strong enough that things should be interesting, and perhaps a little less of the quick-draw type battles we saw sometimes in Nova.  Fighters and drones are weak enough that I'm not sure they'll see a lot of play...  Gun fleets are likely to dominate our metagame, at least at the beginning, though the small craft are also significantly less expensive than they were in AE.  Maybe we'll actually see escort carriers and missile frigates...

As I mentioned up above, I've started working on a spreadsheet for Nova, but it's not production-ready.  It is, however, ready enough that I can probably start doing Battlefleet Gothic conversions.  And let me tell you, this system looks like it's built for such conversions.  Should be a good time, though there also isn't a Drake Notation equivalent established yet, and I'm not about to deal with statblocks that I can't put in text files, no matter how pretty the images may be.  So I'll have to cook something up for that before I can start posting...

Edit: Spreadsheet's up

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Starmada Nova Released!

At long last, Cricket has announced the pre-release for the printed version of Nova, and pdf downloads have become available.  Under normal circumstances, I'd be all over that...  but I have a nasty programming project that I'm already burning late days on.  Not going to download until I have written journal rollback for ext3 filesystems...  Have to have incentives for success.  Expect a review (hopefully) by next week.

Query-Based Reconnaisance

One of my objectives with Fantasy Traveller is to make it somewhat 'older-school' than the 3.x derivatives my group tends to play, though not to go as far as OSRIC and similar retroclones.  So far, I think I've done fairly OK - I have a more-or-less rulings-based magic system (while there are rules for specific effects, there are also a ton of things you can do that aren't well-defined, and which hopefully will never be) and a core which is more closely aligned with Combat as War than Combat as Sport.  However, the problem of Recon and Lore skills has been bothering me for some time.  For those unfamiliar, the stance of the Old School community of skills as a concept is pretty negative (example), with observation skills being a particularly favorite target, since they let the players bypass hazards without any degree of cunning at all.  From the Old School Primer:
Player Tip #5) Ask lots of questions about what you see. Look up. Ask about unusual stonework.  Test floors before stepping...  In other words, die rolls don’t provide a short cut or a crutch to discover and solve all those interesting puzzles and clues scattered throughout a dungeon. The same goes for handling traps (unless there’s a thief class).
So, that's the OSR's stance on observation skills.  Tricky.

Cut back in time to the Traveller game I played in earlier this semester.  As a player, I tend to ask a good number of questions in combat.  Things like "What're they armed with?", "Any grenade belts or sidearms?", "How are they armored?", "How many of them are there?!", "Do they have any distinguishing markings?", "Any obvious alarm systems that it looks like they might try to set off?", and so forth.  I may ask fewer questions during exploration than I should, but during combat, I feel like I go perhaps a little bit overboard.  If all of my questions are answered (and sometimes they're not), it kind of strains suspension of disbelief; sure, I had a high Int and ranks in Recon, but I was absorbing a lot of information really really quickly.  This bothered me a little.

I found a solution to both of these problems simultaneously in a most unlikely place: Grognardling's post on looting libraries for useful books.  In particular, a number of his books provide the PCs with a set number of questions on a particular topic, which they can ask and the DM shall answer.  When I read this, I was immediately reminded of Matt's character in the last Traveller campaign, who had a deal with a demon, whereby he could ask questions of the demon in exchange for radiation exposure.  This mechanic worked pretty damn well, both providing a way to get limited information into the hands of the PCs and as a good flavoring device for the campaign.  So I realized that perhaps this was the solution to Recon and Lore as well.  What I am suggesting is this:

When combat begins, the GM paints things in vague strokes; "You enter a smoky cavern.  Ahead stands a great altar on a dais, with a robed figure and a massive golden idol.  Between you and it stand a mob of filthy cultists armed with an assortment of rusty weapons."  He describes only things which are obvious to the untrained eye.  PCs may then use Recon as an action in combat (Significant by default, or minor at -2 / Difficult for time-shifting) to ask a number of questions about the environment equal to 1 plus their effect.  Particularly difficult or non-obvious questions may cost 2 or more points of effect to answer (spotting a hidden opponent might require a number of points equal to his effect on Stealth, for example).  So questions here might be "How many cultists?", "Are there any chandeliers to swing from?", "Is the robed guy wearing armor underneath the robes?", "Does the idol have gems for eyes?" (though that's kind of a waste, since of course it does), and so forth.  Naturally, this isn't the only way for PCs to gain information; if you engage in melee with someone, you obviously know what kind of weapon they're wielding, if they're wearing non-hidden armor, and similar things.  Another possibility, even, would be to allow Melee + Int as a Difficult / -2 minor action to ask questions about your opponent's skill, strength, dexterity, and fighting style.  Heck, possibly morale state too - sometimes you can see that in the way an opponent fights.

Finally, Lore / Science also clearly falls into this "skills for questions" category.  More of an out-of-combat thing, but rolling Lore and asking 1 plus effect questions about a particular topic on a success does a nice job of limiting "knowledge dump" like you'd get with 3.x Knowledge skills, but also provides some degree of data to the PCs.  As with Recon, some questions may cost multiple points of effect; you're not going to know the demon's Truename off the top of your head, period, but you might know of a few books where it might be found, or what this type of demon's weaknesses are, or what sacrifices might persuade it not to kill you.  As we can see in that example, one good point of skills for questions is that there's some degree of player skill and planning involved in selecting the questions to ask.

Other promising skills for skills as questions include Wizardry for Scrying and other divinations, letting you ask a few questions about a remote locale or person, Liturgy for oracular purposes, and pretty much any of the magic skills for diagnosing things like "Is this magical?"  and "What school of magic is this enchantment?"  Backporting this rule to Traveller, you could apply the same principle to Sensors and Computers; a really good Sensors result lets you ask many questions about the target, while a good Computers check might turn up more data than you were initially looking for.  Streetwise and Survival are promising, too, for 'number of questions to ask of your underworld contacts / number of illegal goods you can procure' and number of questions to ask about natural things ("Is this edible?"  "No."  "Is this deadly poison that we could put on our weapons?"  "Yes."  "Sweet!").

I think part of what makes this a promising 'bridge' mechanic between the Old and New Schools is that, if you give New School players a mechanic for asking questions, they'll start asking questions.  Then, if you switch to an older style, they will likely continue asking questions.  Basically, it builds a good habit on top of the "roll first and ask questions later" tendencies of modern players.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Fantasy Traveller - Priest

Priests are those who devote their lives to deities and religious orders.

Qualification: Edu 6+.  -1 DM per previous career.


Cleric: You were the face of the church to lay people, a traveling priest often forced to defend yourself or your flock, but not devoted to the study of combat.  Strength of will and constitution were a requirement for your line of work, but the ability to pull out quotes from scripture in the tensest situation were what let you stand out.
Survival: End 6+.  Advancement: Edu 6+.

Monk: You were a member of a cloistered monastic order, dedicating your life to the upkeep of a shrine or temple.  You may also have been responsible for scribing copies of your holy book, providing for visiting pilgrims, and brewing beer (seriously, it was traditional in Medieval Europe).  Many monastic orders also taught minimalist fighting styles, in keeping with their vows of poverty.  Strict adherence to the tenets of your order were necessary to remain a monk, while feats of asceticism were looked upon highly.
Survival: Edu 5+.  Advancement: End 7+.

Templar: You were a member of a militant order in the service of a church, tasked with the defense of its temples and pilgrims.  Your faith was your shield in battle, but the church relied on your strength as well.
Survival: Edu 7+.  Advancement: Str 5+.

Basic Training: Priests may choose to take their basic training skills from their specialty rather than the service skills table.

Personal Development:
  1. +1 End
  2. +1 Edu
  3. +1 Soc
  4. +1 Str
  5. Lore (Theology)
  6. Melee (Blunt)

Service skills:
  1. Liturgy
  2. Lore (Theology)
  3. Athletics (Endurance)
  4. Melee (Blunt)
  5. Diplomat
  6. Language (Any)
Cleric skills:
  1. Liturgy
  2. Persuade
  3. Melee (Blunt)
  4. Navigation
  5. Leadership
  6. Deity-specific skill
Monk skills:
  1. Liturgy
  2. Melee (Unarmed or Blunt)
  3. Athletics (Any)
  4. Steward
  5. Lore (Any)
  6. Art (Writing) or Trade (Deity-appropriate)
Templar skills:
  1. Liturgy
  2. Melee (Any)
  3. Heavy Armor
  4. Athletics (Strength)
  5. Athletics (Endurance)
  6. Tactics
Cleric ranks:
  1. Acolyte -> Persuade 1
  2. Shepherd
  3. Cleric -> Liturgy 1
  4. Father
  5. Hierarch -> Leadership 1 or +1 Soc
  6. Messiah
Monk ranks:
  1. Scribe -> Lore (Any) 1
  2. Sworn Brother
  3. Monk -> Liturgy 1
  4. Brother Superior
  5. Abbot -> Diplomat 1 or +1 Soc
  6. Master of the Order
Templar ranks:
  1. Squire -> Heavy Armor 1
  2. Brother Militant
  3. Templar -> Melee (Any) 1
  4. Paladin
  5. Templar Commander -> Leadership 1 or +1 Soc
  6. Defender of the Faith

Sunday, March 18, 2012


Since Nova's supposed to come out like...   yesterday, I figured there probably wouldn't be much point in talking about Admiralty at this time.  And so, something completely different!

Just wanted to spread the word about AetherCon.  As the name and the fact that I'm talking about it suggest, it's an RPG convention.  Unlike most, however, it's completely online - they're looking to use the Traipse VTT.  It's also free.  No geographic excuses, and no price excuses, so if you think you might be free the weekend of the 16th-18th of November, go sign up to play or, better yet, DM!  I don't see any Traveller, and only one OSR game (Labyrinth Lord on the 17th)...

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Mailbag 5: Starmada and Traveller

starmada nova, starmada nova review, and starmada nova release: I've been getting a lot of hits for these, perhaps because not a whole lot of other people are talking about Nova...  bodes well :\.  Latest news is that preorders for the paper book and downloads for the pdf should be up this week.  Soooon.  Until then, not much I can do about a review.

mongoose traveller combat: Overall, I'd say that I liked Mongoose's combat system.  It's quick, which is great.  It's dangerous, but not unduly so; heavy anti-armor weapons like laser rifles kill lightly-armored PCs, but most of the time you're looking at 3d6ish damage (average 10.5), armor 6ish, and 21 HP, so you can take 3 hits to unconscious, another two to dead.  This gap between unconscious and dead is pretty big, which is nice because often you're left with survivors (who can be interrogated, but who you also have to take care of), and because PCs aren't necessarily killed outright either.  I'd also say that there are "enough" legal actions in combat; attack, move, change stance, aim, use leadership, and 'other shenanigans'.  It's neither "All I can do is move and attack", nor "I have a full 52-card deck of combat powers."  Their grappling rules are also nice and simple compared to d20's.  The range tables are a pain to keep track of, the vehicle combat rules are a bit more complex, and I'm not entirely happy with their implementation of Reactions, having seen Trailblazer's, but overall, it's a pretty damn good combat system.

traveller campaign blog: Well, I'm not sure of any off the top of my head that do play-by-play session reports, but if there were such a blog, it would be found in one of three places.  Obsidian Portal has a large list of Traveller campaigns; some of them may have active blogs.  Citizens of the Imperium has a number of blogs, I believe, but I haven't explored it fully.  Finally, Spinward Scout has a great heaping pile of Traveller resources, some of which are attached to blogs.  If you don't mind the fact that it's audio, the Close the Airlock podcast might also work.

mongoose traveller campaign management: I found the best way to manage mine was a combination of an Obsidian Portal wiki for things the players knew about the universe, a printed and scribbled on hexmap of a subsector, and a huge pile of text files.  I believe Alex used the Portal and a bunch of spreadsheets for his.  You might also find the Starfarer's Kit useful (or at least entertaining).

Friday, March 16, 2012

Fantasy Traveller - Peasant

Peasants are the common working folk.

Qualification: None.  Anybody can be a peasant.  In fact, most people are!

Craftsman: You worked as a skilled craftsman, such as a smith, architect, or cobbler.  Your ability to make quality products determined the strength of your business, but courting the favor of the nobility was what really took your places.
Survival: Edu 6+.  Advancement: Soc 6+.

Farmer: You worked the land of a feudal lord, growing crops and raising animals.  Your continued survival required long hours of labor in the fields to eke out a living, while advancement required pleasing your lord and other nobles.
Survival: End 5+.  Advancement: Soc 7+.

Sailor: You were part of the crew of a ship, boat, or riverine raft, and so are much more well-traveled than the average peasant.  Sailing was dangerous work, though; it required enough coordination to not get caught in the rigging or hit with the yardarm, and enough knowledge of the coast to avoid shoals and pirates.
Survival: Dex 7+.  Advancement: Edu 5+.

Basic training: Peasants gain their basic training skills from their specialty table rather than the career skills table.

Personal Development:
  1. +1 End
  2. +1 Int
  3. +1 Edu
  4. Melee (Unarmed)
  5. Gambler
  6. Carouse
Career skills:
  1. Haggle
  2. Persuade
  3. Trade (Any)
  4. Animals (Any)
  5. Streetwise
  6. 1 Contact
Craftsman skills:
  1. Haggle
  2. Trade (Any)
  3. Trade (Any)
  4. Lore (Appropriate to trade)
  5. Art (Any) or Mechanic
  6. Persuade
 Farmer skills:
  1. Animals (Farming)
  2. Trade (Farmer)
  3. Melee (Spears or Bludgeons)
  4. Survival
  5. Haggle
  6. Athletics (Endurance)
Sailor skills:
  1. Seafarer
  2. Navigation
  3. Lore (Nautical)
  4. Steward
  5. Melee (Bludgeon or Small Blades)
  6. Haggle
Craftsman ranks:
  1. Apprentice -> Trade (Any) 1
  2. Journeyman
  3. Craftsman -> Haggle 1
  4. Overseer
  5. Master Craftsman -> Trade (Any) or +1 Soc
  6. Legendary Craftsman
 Farmer ranks:
  1. Dirt Farmer -> Trade (Farming) 1
  2. Nerf Herder
  3. Goat Herder -> Animals (Farming) 1
  4. Farmer
  5. Homesteader -> Survival 1
  6. Yeoman Farmer -> +1 Soc
 Sailor ranks:
  1. Deckhand -> Trade (Sailor) 1
  2. Swabbie
  3. Sailor -> Gambler 1
  4. First Mate
  5. Captain -> Navigation 1 or +1 Soc
  6. Dread Pirate

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Interstate Model of Campaigning


While was plotting the route for my summer migration, I was reminded of a realization I had during a previous move.  It occurred to me that the optimal structure for a modernish narrative-style campaign is not that of a railroad, but rather of an interstate.

When you're planning a trip via interstate, you figure out where you are, where you want to end up, and any particular sites you want to stop at along the way.  You get out on the road, and find things aren't quite as you hoped; there are traffic jams, police, road work, and detours.  Not all of these interactions are negative, though - sometimes you get behind an 18-wheeler who knows exactly what's up with the traffic and is good at pushing people out of the way, and you can draft off of him for a while.  Eventually, you realize there's something you need in order to keep going; gas, food, sleep, or bodily relief.  Then you get into the interesting decision-making; this stop looks really sketchy, but the next one isn't for another 30 miles...  will I run out of gas before I get there?  Do I want to take the risks inherent in this stop, or the risks inherent in continuing without stopping?  What if the next station is closed?  Most of the time, we choose well enough, get what we need (maybe for a higher price than we'd hoped), and we eventually make it to our destination.

Contrast with the railroad experience.  You get on the train, and it goes wherever it's going.  You don't worry about getting resources, or making good time despite obstacles; you sit back, relax, and just let it roll.  Eventually maybe you have to change trains, but that's fairly straightforward most of the time.  Sometimes the train slows down and stops mysteriously, which is frustrating, but there's nothing you can do about it.

We've all seen campaigns that run like railroads, and many of us have seen sandboxes too...  but I don't know that I've ever seen an interstate campaign compromise between the two.  The real point there is to give the PCs some agency - you need a +n widget to fight the dragon.  There are a couple ways you could go about getting a +n widget; there's rumored to be one in the Tomb of Terrors (risky, but probably workable), or you could try to get the dwarves to make you one (safe, but expensive), or you could try to steal the Lord of Argros' +n widget (dangerous, but gives the social and thiefy classes a good time).  Let the PCs choose how they handle the rest stops, and how they circumvent obstacles.  And maybe it turns out that the path they chose isn't viable; the rest stop is closed, the Lord of Argros' widget is a fake, and you're suddenly in trouble for trying to steal it.  This stuff happens.  Choices and actions have consequences...  they can delay your arrival at the destination, and maybe imperil the trip as a whole.  But likewise, a good choice may speed things up or make the end goal more likely ("Hey, we found a thing that may be useful for the final objective in the Tomb!  Awesome!").

So next time you're thinking about running a railroad, look at what the PCs may need along the way, and try to provide them with a couple ways to get it; one risky, one expensive, and one really risky but quick and cheap.

As a personal aside and retrospective, it's kind of amazing how to me how far I've come since I had this idea.  That was less than two years ago, and now I basically run and play in sandboxes as a matter of course, with little planned plot and lots of player agency.  I think this may have been one of the first steps on my path towards sandboxing...

Monday, March 12, 2012

Spring Break D&D (or Lack Thereof), and the Virtues of New Players

I must admit, I'm a pretty bad college student, socially speaking.  Don't drink, don't party, not involved in any student organizations...  that kind of thing.  One of my favorite sins against expectation, though, is that I quite like staying at school over spring break, as I'm doing right now.  It's quiet, inexpensive, and I can both sleep and get a lot of work done, if I can find the motivation.  It's a good time for taxes, haircuts, and doctor's appointments, too.

But, because everyone else is gone, there is no gaming.  This troubles me, because given the amount of free time available, there could be lots of gaming.

So I think next spring break (and perhaps next Thanksgiving break, if I feel like giving it a trial run), I'm going to see if I can gather a group of newbies and run a couple sessions.  And hey, if it goes well, might even get another group out of it.  But I want to target people who have never played before, in particular.  There are a couple reasons for this:
  • New players are entertaining - the rules don't yet constrain their thoughts, as 3.x / 4e do with many of their players.  As a result, in my experience new players often try wacky things, some of which are actually good ideas ("I poke the hole in the floor with my spear..."), and some of which are not.  In turn, dealing with these creative ideas can make one a better GM by breaking one away from rules-as-written GMing.
  • New players are less likely to powergame - min-maxing is a learned tendency, I find.  The one new player I've met who was a hardcore powergamer from the start was an experienced WoW player; his first reaction upon exposure to the 3.5 chargen rules was to find and read the old WotC CharOp forums.  That, however, is the exception; most new players try lots of suboptimal things, and I find that endearing (and certainly easier to manage than a fully powergamed 3.x party).
  • New players are the future - There's been much to-do about the death of the tabletop RPG industry.  Theories vary, but many blame video games for a reduction in incoming players.  Me, I think Wizards and 4e had a strong hand in it, by fracturing the base and killing the OGL (though in truth, I should also thank them for making playing other systems more common and killing the OGL product glut)...  but in any case, new players are good for the hobby and the industry.
At this point, you might be saying "Well then John, why haven't you gathered a group of newbies already, if they're so awesome?"  I know I'm thinking it, myself, but there are a couple of reasons.  My Operating Systems partner would be greatly wroth with me if I tried to GM a game this semester, I think.  I also have unfinished business with Fjolkir the Beardless, which must be concluded with the current group.

Finally, there's something safe and familiar about playing with the usual suspects.  I can rely on Drew to cause trouble, Matt to fireball it, Jared to act as the voice of morality (usually) and to pay attention to clues and setting elements, Alex to act as the voice of optimism, and Tim to use illusions.  They're good friends, and I am loathe to abandon them...  but I must wander.  My time at college is running out, and I fear I will not get as good a chance to gather new players again.  We are also too many - DM+5 is hard at mid-levels with 3.x, while DM+4 or even +3 works much better.  As a result, I think that after this semester, I will take the plunge and go in search of newbies.

Fantasy Traveller - Noble

Nobles are members of the upper class of society.

Qualification: Soc 10+.  -1 DM per previous career.  If you have a Social Standing of 10 or more, you automatically qualify.  If you are trying to qualify for the Knight specialization, you may add your rank in Man-At-Arms or Templar as a positive DM to your qualification roll.


Courtier: You were a member of the court of a noble, or possibly a traveling diplomat.  Avoiding embarrassing yourself in court relied on tact, while advancing your station entailed understanding the web or power and knowing who to manipulate.
Survival: Int 4+.  Advancement: Soc 8+.

Knight: You were a member of the military aristocracy, leading armies on the field and distinguishing yourself in battle.  Heavily armored, your survival often depended on your strength, but achieving notable victories required a careful study of history, tactics, heraldry, and the hearts of men.
Survival: Str 6+.  Advancement: Edu 6+.

Magistrate: You served as a judge, arbiter of disputes, or tax collector.  Knowledge of the legal code was essential to keeping your position, while wisdom and discernment helped advance your station.
Survival: Edu 5+.  Advancement: Int 7+.

Personal Development:
  1. +1 Int
  2. +1 Edu
  3. +1 Soc
  4. Carouse
  5. Deception
  6. 1 Contact
Service Skills:
  1. Advocate
  2. Diplomat
  3. Persuade
  4. Investigate
  5. Lore (History, Heraldry, Geography, or similar)
  6. Melee (Blade)
Courtier skills:
  1. Advocate
  2. Diplomat
  3. Deception
  4. Carouse
  5. Persuade
  6. 1 Contact
Knight skills:
  1. Leadership
  2. Melee (Any)
  3. Heavy Armor
  4. Animals (Riding)
  5. Tactics
  6. Athletics (Strength or Endurance)
Magistrate skills:
  1. Investigate
  2. Recon
  3. Persuade
  4. Advocate
  5. Streetwise
  6. Leadership
Courtier ranks:
  1. Liability -> Carouse 1
  2. Adjutant
  3. Courtier -> Deception 1
  4. Webspinner
  5. Unassailable -> Investigate 1 or +1 Soc
  6. Voice of the Court
Knight ranks:
  1. Squire -> Animals (Riding) 1
  2. Gallant
  3. Knight Errant -> Leadership 1
  4. Knight
  5. Knight Protector -> Tactics 1 or +1 Soc
  6. Justiciar
Magistrate ranks:
  1. Investigator -> Investigate 1
  2. Lawyer
  3. Magistrate -> Advocate 1
  4. Hand of Justice
  5. Justice -> Liturgy (Deity of Justice) 1 or +1 Soc
  6. Chief Justice

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Starmada Sunday: Continuing Damage, Repeating, and Geometric Series

The Homeworld ion frigate - inspiring G-arc inverted range mods repeaters since 1999

So I mentioned in my previous post on ship design that there were a number of other topics I wanted to cover.  A lot of this is going to be rapidly obsoleted by Starmada Nova when it launches, but for those who don't convert (ha), it might be useful.

So, first topic.  Of the weapon traits, Continuing Damage and Repeating get a lot of discussion as being terrifyingly good.  While this is actually true of Continuing Damage, it's only situationally true of Repeating.  To show this, it's necessary to show that the number of hits generated by both of these traits can be modeled as a geometric random variable.  This is is a formalization of the process of flipping a coin until it comes up tails for a coin which has a probability p of landing heads-up, and its output is the number of flips it took to get tails.  Try it a few times and write down how many flips it took each time.  If you do this enough times, and your coin is fair, you'll get an exponential function, where it'll take i flips about 1/(2^i)th of the time (so 1 flip half the time, 2 flips a quarter of the time, and so forth).  If you work out the math with generating functions, the average number of flips it'll take to get heads works out to be 2 for a fair coin.

Continuing Damage's performance is easy to explain under this idiom.  Rather than ending the series when we get heads, we end it when we roll an odd, which happens with the same probability.  Thus, we can expect to get two points of systems damage per die of Continuing Damage, on average.  Further, under the standard interpretation of how Continuing Damage works, we get a hull hit for each point of Continuing Damage; if we roll an odd the first time, then it's a hull hit, and if we got an even initially, then we keep rolling until we get an odd, and hence a hull hit.  Therefore, each point of Continuing Damage is exactly twice as effective as a normal point of damage against starships, as a normal point of damage is guaranteed 1 point of systems damage and gets a point of hull damage half the time.

So, what's the problem with Continuing?  The issue actually isn't, mathematically, that it guts ships without killing their hulls, since it does hull damage on each die, and the ratio of systems damage to hull damage is the same, on average, as with non-continuing damage.  The problem is actually that it's underpriced, at a price multiplier of x1.7.  Since it's twice as effective as normal damage (on average), it should probably be x2, like Double Damage.  It also has the nice property that it scores a hull hit on every die, which is only shared by Extra Hull Damage, which is much more expensive at x3.  It's possible that the community as a whole has misinterpreted the wording on Continuing Damage, but it appears that if Cricket originally intended it to work differently, he has since forgotten.

So, short version: Continuing actually is probably the most reliably cost-supereffective anti-ship weapon trait in the game, scoring x2 hits all the time for x1.7 price, for a 1.18 effectiveness / price multiplier.  Use it if you like blowing up the enemy's ships (and I think most of us probably do), or houserule it to an x2 price multiplier.  For all that Continuing looks like a swingy trait on the surface, it's actually very reliably effective, since it always gets a hull hit.  For bonus points, combine with Catastrophic.

Repeating's a bit harder to analyze.  Here we have a coin that we quit flipping when we miss...  which means that the number of hits we get varies with accuracy, and our probability isn't always 1/2.  Fortunately, the expected number of heads we get before we get tails on a biased coin with probability p of heads is p / (1-p).  We can then work out the expected number of hits per point of RoF based on our accuracy rating:

  • 6+: p = 1/6, so (1/6)/(5/6) = 1/5 hits per repeating RoF, on average.  1.2 times as effective as 6+ Acc without repeating.
  • 5+: p = 1/3, so (1/3)(2/3) = 1/2 hits per RoF, 1.5 times as effective as 5+ non-repeating
  • 4+: p = 1/2, so (1/2)/(1/2) = 1 hit per RoF, 2 times as effective as 4+
  • 3+: p = 2/3, so (2/3)/(1/3) = 2 hits per RoF, 3 times as effective as 3+
  • 2+: p = 5/6, so (5/6)/(1/6) = 5 hits per RoF, 6 times as effective as 2+
So, what this analysis shows is that Repeating is much, much better on highly accurate weapons.  OK, that makes sense.  But when is it cost-effective?  Repeating has a cost multiplier of x3.  This means that with Repeating on a 3+ weapon, you're breaking even.  With repeating on 4+ or higher, you're paying for more than you're getting.  And on 2+, you're getting twice what you paid for; for the price of one 2+ repeater with 6 expected / effective RoF, you could instead get 3 RoF of 2+ weapons, which would be half as effective on average.

Thus, repeating is only broken if you can use it on 2+ weapons...  or if you can make your weapons 2+ during combat by way of range modifiers.  In general, you're going to want to use Inverted Range Mods with these; you want to be obliterating people far away before they obliterate you, ideally during the first round of real firing.  3+ Inverted Range Mods Repeaters and 4+ Inverted Double Range Mods Repeaters are both terrifyingly effective; I've seen them in action, and can attest that they core battleships like nobody's business.  My first win ever was with the Grumm from Hammer and Claw, whose capital ships mount several variants of the aptly-named Eviscerator as their bow weapons.  Range 12-15, Acc 3+, Imp 3-4, Damage 1, Inverted Range Mods, Repeating.  Now, the Grumm only ever being a few of these to battle, and no more than one per ship, so when you score a weapon hit on the Grumm, there's always that chance that you'll get the Eviscerator (and then you celebrate, and the Grumm are sad).  But if you were to build a fleet armed with these as their primary weapons, rather than a few specialists...  Eesh.

On the flip side, if you know your opponent is bringing the good kind of repeaters (3+ or 2+), bring Countermeasures.  That -1 Acc really mitigates Repeating's effectiveness.  Evasive Action can likewise seriously reduce the amount of hurt they can put on you; try to get up to speed, then coast on evasive action through their long-range killzone if you're playing with Newtonian Movement.  Once you get into short range where they're not at 2+, you'll at least be on even footing mathematically.  On the flip side, if your enemy knows you're bringing out the Repeater-cheese, they'll have Countermeasures, so buy Fire Control.  It's worth it (and hey, if they don't have Countermeasures, then it becomes free Directed Damage, which can increase your expected number of hull hits by a factor of 1.5).  Also bring some secondary guns in case they close past your long-range repeaters.  You could also try to maintain a dispersed formation of killzones, so that each ship is in the long-range, high-effectiveness area of another ship's repeaters.  This suffers from the standard problem of dispersed formations, though, namely that the enemy only has to deal with part of your force at a time, and can use his entire force effectively.

So, the verdict on Repeating: it's situationally good, or tactical by my reckoning.  The problem is that getting into that sweet spot is pretty easy; with inverted range mods and long ranges, you can pull it off most games.  Likewise, the payoff when you do is huge, and the penalty for failing to do so is not very severe (even when you take into account the x1.4 cost multiplier for Inverted Range Mods, 3+ repeaters at medium range are still fairly cost-effective).  You only lose at close range.  This is what pushes it into borderline-degenerate territory.  Also: never ever put repeating on 5+ or 6+ weapons.  Generally avoid putting it on 4+, since you'll usually be losing effectiveness if you do.  3+ is fair game, and if you're buying 2+ weapons, Repeating is extremely cost effective.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Mailbag 4: Trailblazer and OSRIC

Big six magic items: The 'big six' items in 3.x D&D are items which provide a constant effect bonus to one of your core statistics - ability scores, AC, to-hit, and saving throws.  They're called the big six because there are six of them:
  • Magic weapon
  • Magic armor / shield
  • Ring of Protection
  • Amulet of Natural Armor
  • Cloak of Resistance
  • Ability score booster for your primary stat (or stats)
    • Gloves of Dexterity or Gauntlets of Ogre Power / Belt of Giant's Strength for physical classes
    • Headband of Intellect, Circlet of Charisma, or Periapt of Wisdom for casters
They're considered the big six because they're arguably the best magic items in the game; they're always on, so you don't have to burn actions to use them.  They never run out of charges.  And they provide bonuses to things that you will use in the vast majority of combats. Even better, for everyone but Wisdom and Constitution based classes, you can use all six of them at the same time because their magic item slots don't overlap; divine casters and monks have to choose between natural armor and a bonus to Wis.  Constitution is a similar case; anyone can benefit from the Amulet of Health's Con bonus, but natural armor is generally the preferred choice.

There's a lot of complaining about the Big Six because they're optimal, but boring - you never have to activate them, they don't do neat things, and generally they go one your character sheet, you add the bonus in to your stuff, and then you forget about them.  I've addressed this previously and at more length here.

3.5 reserve feat source: Reserve feats first appeared in Complete Mage, but there were also several in Complete Champion, I believe (including one that provided free healing up to half of the recipient's maximum HP, which was quite nice for taking a really torn-up party and bringing them back up to some semblance of fighting shape).  They were a neat idea, but some of them were not particularly well thought out.  Since it looks like a similar mechanism will be core in 5e, I'm hoping they'll do a better job there.

Base magic bonus: In Trailblazer, base magic bonus is a measure of a character's total magical prowess, much like base attack bonus is a measure of their fighting ability.  BmB serves as your caster level for all spells that you cast.  It's also how TB managed their elegant solution to multiclass casters; BmB from multiple classes stacks, but the maximum level of spell you can get from a particular class' spell list is limited by your total BmB from the class.  Fighters, Rogues, and Barbarians have 1/3 BmB (so +1 for every 3 complete levels), while Monks, Rangers, and Paladins have 1/2 and full casters have 1/1.  Bards have 2/3 with an odd caster-level hack.  As an example in usage, a Fighter 6 / Ranger 4 would have +4 BmB total; +2 from his six fighter levels, and +2 from his four ranger levels.  Since he has +2 from ranger and an effective caster level of 4 total, he can prepare and cast 2nd level spells from the ranger list (though TB actually has them using the Druid spell list).

Similarly, a Sorcerer 3 / Cleric 3 has BmB +6, and 3 from each class, so he can prep and cast 3rd level spells from both lists.  When he levels, though, and becomes a Sorc 4 / Clr 3, he can now cast 4th level spells, since he has BmB 7 and hence 7 caster level...  but only from the Sorcerer list, since he doesn't have 4 points of BmB from Cleric.  I refer you to Trailblazer itself for further information, and my 3/4 BmB full-caster hack, should you decide against using action points.

fun magic items for first level characters: Not something I've ever investigated thoroughly - at first level, every magic item is fun (well, unless it's cursed).  Al wrote up a few a while back, though; while they're nominally for old-school usage, they'd work OK in 3.x except for the thieves' tools, which you could easily swap out for masterwork thieves' tools per the SRD.

OSRIC random dungeon:  I may not be the most qualified to speak on this, since I only ran one session in it, but I did generate a random dungeon under OSRIC's rules.  My roommate has also done so (and more extensively than I), and I believe wrote a program to help with it by generating room contents...  Overall, I'd say that the random map generation is fairly weak (but it always is), while the random room contents are pretty good.  If I were to populate a 'random' dungeon, I'd probably pop on over to Dyson Logos', borrow one of his many many excellent maps, and then stock it with the OSRIC room contents tables.  Wizards' old map of the week archive might also have some good ones; I haven't been through there thoroughly in a looong time.

OSRIC introductory adventure: Sadly, I can't say I've found one yet.  Free intro module support in the OSR seems to be fairly weak, as Al of Beyond the Black Gate discussed way back in '09.  In other news, maybe I should write one for ACKS...  OSRIC as a system, while interesting, is more complex and less to my tastes (and, I suspect, those of my players) than ACKS.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Fantasy Traveller - Man-at-Arms

Men at arms are those who make their living through fighting prowess.

Qualification: End 5+.  -1 DM per previous career, -2 DM if aged 30 or older.


Constable: You enforced the peace within towns, serve as bodyguards, and investigate breaches of the law.  Your survival depended on your physical toughness, while advancement required perception and tact.
Survival: End 5+.  Advancement: Int 7+.

Soldier: You served in the armies of one or more states, fighting with sword and bow.  You survived because you were tough, but became famous for your strength.
Survival: End 6+.  Advancement: Str 6+.

Mercenary: You fought not for gods or country, but for gold.  Your survival depended on cunning and the ability to tell when an employer was about to turn on you, while your fame depended on your fighting ability.
Survival: Int 7+.  Advancement: Str 5+.

Personal Development:
  1. Str +1
  2. Dex +1
  3. End +1
  4. Int +1
  5. Melee (Unarmed)
  6. Gambler
Service Skills:
  1. Melee (Any)
  2. Missile Combat (Any)
  3. Heavy Armor
  4. Recon
  5. Animals
  6. Athletics (Any)
Constable Skills:
  1. Melee (Any)
  2. Heavy Armor
  3. Investigate
  4. Persuade
  5. Advocate
  6. Streetwise
Soldier Skills:
  1. Melee (Any)
  2. Missile Combat (Any)
  3. Heavy Armor
  4. Athletics (Any)
  5. Tactics
  6. Melee (Any)
 Mercenary Skills:
  1. Melee (Any)
  2. Heavy Armor
  3. Haggle
  4. Deception
  5. Diplomat
  6. Tactics
Constable ranks:
  1. Rookie -> Investigate 1
  2. Guardsman
  3. Constable -> Melee (Any) 1
  4. Bodyguard
  5. Sheriff -> Leadership 1 or +1 Soc
  6. Commander of the Guards
Soldier ranks:
  1. Newblood -> Melee (Any) 1
  2. Trooper
  3. Veteran -> Athletics (Any) 1
  4. Sergeant
  5. Hero -> Leadership 1 or +1 Soc
  6. Champion
Mercenary ranks:
  1. Bravo -> Melee (Any) 1
  2. Sellsword
  3. Blooded -> Recon 1
  4. Sergeant
  5. Commander -> Persuade 1 or +1 Int
  6. Warlord

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Reviewsday: And My ACKS...

Picked up a copy of ACKS in pdf this last week and have been slowly working my way through it when time permits.  So far I'm very impressed.  It feels like a compromise position between 3e and OSRIC, almost, with the underlying structure closer to OSRIC, but with player options and a number of simplifications reminiscent of 3.x.  Ability scores, for example, are on a flat modifier system like 3e's.  Given that we wasted probably an hour of chargen for OSRIC explaining (and re-explaining) the ability score charts, this is a Good Thing for me.  But, the modifier categories are variable-width, with a narrower ranges of bonuses and penalties, much like Traveller.  Also nice; a high score is now good, but less overwhelmingly important than it was in 3.x.

Proficiencies are also very much along the 3e vein; they're kind of a combination of feats and skills, and you slowly get more as you level.  Since the core classes don't really have class features that increase with level (mostly), being able to differentiate yourself from other members of your class via proficiencies is quite nice.  I also really like ACKS' handling of races.  Their core only includes three - human, dwarf, and elf.  Humans have access to a wide range of classes: fighter, cleric, mage, thief, assassin (kind of a fighter-thief blend; no more instant-death attack), bladedancer (dervishy cleric variant), explorer (wilderness fighter / old-school ranger), and bard (actually not terrible).  Dwarf and elf have access to two specialized classes each; Dwarven Vaultguard (dwarf fighter), Dwarven Craftpriest (dwarf cleric), Elven Spellsword (elf mage/fighter), and Elven Nightblade (elf mage/thief).  These classes roll the racial bonuses into the class itself, and increase the XP required to level accordingly.  Demihuman level limits are back, but humans also cap at 14th in all classes, with dwarves and elves capping between 10 and 13 depending on the class.  Also interesting is the vast reduction of minimum ability score requirements; dwarves require a minimum Con of 9, and elves require a minimum Int of 9.  That's it.  No more "Arg, I can't play a gnome because my Dex is 1 point too low" dilemmas during character generation.  Each class also has one or more prime requisites, which also require a 9 or more, but these can be raised by sacrificing points from other scores, and you get bonus XP for having high prime reqs, just as in OSRIC, though there are tiers of XP bonus (+5% and +10%), and they're more standardized across classes.

Speaking of ability scores, ACKS advocates 3d6 in-order, which is harsh.  To counterbalance it, though, they also suggest that each player generate five (5) characters, choosing one to be their main PC, and two as backup PCs for when the main dies.  The final two are to be given to the DM (er, Judge in their parlance; I like the Judges' Guild homage) for use as NPCs, potential henchmen, rival adventurers, and similar.  I quite like this, for a number of reasons.  It can generate dilemma situations and interesting choices for the players without totally screwing them, but also generates free content for the DM.  Five is a lot, though, especially if it's their first time building ACKS chars.  Three might work too, with one main PC, one backup, and one NPC.

Speaking of backup PCs, they have a highly entertaining rule for generating XP for your next PC if you don't want to switch command to one of your henchmen, if you have any.  And you probably should have henchmen; porters are less important than they were in OSRIC, since you can carry more, but Charisma is useful again, since it lets you have many and loyal helpers (and backup PCs for when you die).  And you will probably die; save-or-die poisons are the norm, as in OSRIC (though some are save vs poison or be paralyzed, I believe).  The Death and Dismemberment table is also quite good; reminds me strongly of d20 Warheart's.  There's no level loss for resurrection, but you need a 7th level cleric, and you also have to make a roll on the Tampering with Mortality table, which can generate many and unpleasant side effects of going beyond the mortal coil.

For those adventurers who do make it to high level, though, awesome stuff awaits.  There's a whole chapter (and a long chapter, at that) on fun stuff like spell research, magic item creation, building castles and cities, running thieves' guilds, ritual spells (stuff like wish), raising undead armies...  pretty much everything I mentioned here as "stuff you should be able to do in high-level D&D", and then some (magical crossbreeding to make owlbears, for example).  It's...  pretty amazing.  I've seen whole sourcebooks on some of these topics that did poorer jobs of it.  Granted, those books were written for much more complex systems, but still...  ACKS has done a very concise, but functional job.

The trouble is that these ventures take a lot of money.  Fortunately, ACKS awards XP per gold piece extracted from the dungeon, and even suggests a standard ratio of XP from monsters to XP from gold that should be awarded.  Thus, since you know how much XP a PC of nth level will have, you can use that ratio to determine about how much gold they should have earned over their careers.  This makes starting out of levels higher than first pretty easy.  ACKS also provides mercantile ventures / speculative trading rules reminiscent of Traveller's, but simpler and more accessible.  You know those caravans that low-level PCs get stuck guarding all-too-often?  Well, turns out they're owned by mid-level PCs trying to move silk at a profit.

Which brings us to the worldbuilding angle.  ACKS has some very interesting things to say about fantasy worldbuilding on giant hexmaps, but most interesting to me is their advice on building a 'borderlands' region as a setting.  It's like they went "Hey, you.  We heard you wanted to run Western Marches, but are a little too lazy.  Well, we were in the same position once, and here are all the things we think you should know."  It's good stuff.

In short, I feel like ACKS accomplishes several of my goals for Fantasy Traveller (relative simplicity, old-schoolishness with some degree of differentiation between characters of the same class, hexmaps, lower power curve), while also nailing high-level play.  I have a bunch of career tables queued up, though, so they're still going to come out of the pipe, despite the fact that they will likely not see use any time soon.  ACKS is definitely on the to-run list, hopefully for this summer, and quite possibly into next fall semester as well.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Fantasy Traveller - Arcanist

Arcanists are those who make their living primarily through the study and practice of arcane magic.

Qualification: Int 6+. -1 DM per previous career


Sorcerer: You developed a natural destructive power, and spent your time either in the service of a government or on the run from it.  Your survival depended on some degree of physical toughness, but you advanced through raw magical talent.
Survival: End 6+.  Advancement: Int 6+.

Warlock: You studied Secrets Man Was Not Meant to Know.  Hunted as a witch and a heretic, you quickly learned to hide your abilities.  Your survival was centered around your ability to deceive others, while your power increased through study of further secrets.
Survival: Int 7+.  Advancement: Edu 5+.

Wizard: You studied magic formally at one of several academies, and may have served as a court mage for a noble house.  Your continued employment depended on the rigor of your studies, but advancement required pulling strings and knowing the right people.
Survival: Edu 5+.  Advancement: Soc 7+.

Basic Training: Arcanists gain their basic training skills from their specialty, rather than from the Career Skills table.

Personal Development:
  1. +1 Int
  2. +1 Edu
  3. +1 Soc
  4. +1 Dex
  5. +1 End
  6. Language (Any)

Service Skills:
  1. Sorcery
  2. Wizardry
  3. Black Magic
  4. Language (Any)
  5. Lore (Any)
  6. Alchemy

Sorcerer Skills:
  1. Sorcery
  2. Persuade
  3. Deception
  4. Melee (Any)
  5. Stealth
  6. Jack of Trades

Warlock Skills:
  1. Black Magic
  2. Deception
  3. Lore (Any)
  4. Language (Any)
  5. Alchemy
  6. Streetwise

Wizard Skills:
  1. Wizardry
  2. Diplomat
  3. Lore (Any)
  4. Language (Any)
  5. Alchemy
  6. Advocate

Sorcerer ranks:
  1. Talent -> Sorcery 1
  2. Apprentice
  3. Sorcerer -> Jack of Trades 1
  4. Elementalist
  5. Elemental Master -> +1 Soc or Sorcery 2
  6. Sorcerer Lord
Warlock ranks:
  1. Minion -> Streetwise 1
  2. Cultist
  3. Warlock -> Black Magic 1
  4. Necromancer
  5. Coven Leader -> 1d3 contacts and 1 enemy
  6. Speaker in Darkness
Wizard ranks:
  1. Apprentice -> Lore (Any) 1 or Alchemy 1
  2. Scribe
  3. Wizard -> Wizardry 1
  4. Sage
  5. Magister -> +1 Soc or Diplomat 1
  6. Archmage

Events, mishaps, and reward tables are probably going to wait until I'm mostly done with the classes.  I'm also considering doing Events on a 1d6, rather than Mongoose's standard 2d6.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Starmada Nova Update

Just a small blurb - Cricket has recently pushed conversion rules from AE to Nova and alternate movement systems for Nova, available here and here respectively.

The conversion rules are the most interesting part, probably.
  • Hulls are 1.5 times as large as they were in AE.  This is sensible, since all hits are now hull hits. 
  • Shields degrade really quickly now...  worrisome.  Thrust ratings look the same as ever.
  • Anti-fighter batteries are now real weapons range 3 and higher accuracy, though their firepower is still fairly low.  
  • Boarding pods and teleporters are now included in the cost of marines, which suggests that marines will now serve as some kind of specialized short-range weapon.  This is neat, because now just putting defensive marines on your ships is no longer a thing (it was an annoying gamble in AE; you didn't want to get boarded and not have marines to defend, but people rarely boarded).  
  • Carrier capacity is measured in flights, which appear to be equal in utility to one of the 50-point AE standard flights.  Bad news for the fighter jocks, perhaps...  though I'd also be very surprised if customized fighters disappeared entirely.  No mention of seekers or strikers specifically.
  • Cloaking is confirmed!  O frabjous day!  
  • Facets and screens are rolled into standard shields for the time being, though Cricket has mentioned on the forums that faceted at least will be in the ADB Armada sourcebooks.
  • "Flotillas cannot be converted using these rules."  Never have I seen a happier sentence.  Well, maybe not never, but definitely rarely.
  • Fire Control still exists, and probably serves its same purpose.
  • Hyperdrive's still around.  No notes on function.
  • Mines are also still in, but you get fewer of them.
  • Point Defense is no longer a trait, being subsumed into ECM.  Same for Countermeasures.  Armor Plating has been converted to armor boxes on the hull track.
  • Stealth is still a thing, but it was mentioned on the forum previously that it works like ECM, except that it can't be damaged, and is therefore more expensive.  None of that weird ranging stuff that it did in AE.
 Weapon conversion is pretty straightforward; not much in the way of surprises in terms of core stat conversions.  Some of the trait conversions are interesting, though.  Here's a list of traits we know are in, and the AE traits that they convert from, where they differ:
  • Accurate (Anti-Fighter)
  • Ballistic (Minimum Range)
  • Carronade
  • Catastrophic (oh boy)
  • Double Damage (also comes from plain old high-damage weapons)
  • Diffuse (Double Range Mods)
  • Expendable (Ammo)
  • Focused (Inverted Range Mods)
  • Guided (No Range Mods)
  • Piercing (one level of piercing for all your shieldbreaking needs; hooray!) 
  • Proximity (Area Effect)
  • Repeating  (I think Dan will actually fix Repeating this time, though)
  • Scatter (Range-Based Foo traits)
  • Slow (Slow-Firing)
  • Telescopic (Inverted Range-Based Foo traits)
  • Triple Damage (from DMG 4 and 5 weapons)
  • Volatile (Variable Foo traits)
Weapon traits that we know are out, as they appear on the conversion list but don't convert into traits (just firepower modifiers):
  • Continuing Damage
  • Crew Killer
  • Fire-Linked
  • Increased Hits
  • Increased Impact
  • Halves and Ignores Shields (now are a multiplier to firepower and Piercing)
  • No Hull Damage
  • Non-Piercing
  • Piercing +n (also a multiplier and Piercing)
  • Starship-Exclusive
That's a pretty good list, there, of things that were problems in AE because they were either too good, so everyone abused them, or because they were pretty terrible, and so were a waste of page space.  Hope continues.

Looking at these traits, I should be able to convert the Eldar pretty handily; x1.5 hull, easy firepower conversion since most of my stuff was RoF1 IMP1 DAM1 anyways, ECM3 from Point Defense + Countermeasures, and Cloaking still in.  Sounds like a party.

As for the movement, three simple variants: Cinematic, Etheric, and Solar.  Cinematic is pretty much what we've been using.  Etheric is simple enough, and Solar looks very Eldar, and also very good for modeling naval engagement in the Age of Sail.  Huzzah!

But yeah...  the rate at which Cricket's been leaking material has increased again, which leads me to hope that it will actually be released soon.  Stay tuned.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Mailbag 3: Starmada Ship Design

Got several hits recently for the search term "starmada ship design".  Initially I kind of ignored them, but upon further reflection I realized that there's actually a lot to say on this topic.  There are several schools of thought, a lot of crunchy math to be done, and plenty of personal experience to draw on.  Plus, if I queue up a bunch of posts about Admiralty Edition, maybe Nova Edition will come out, by the Umbrella Principle (looking at starting an AE Simplest Campaign for the same reason, actually.  Well, that and the fact that I'm kinda jonesing for 'mada...).

So much for motivation.  While reflecting on this topic in the shower, I realized that there are essentially three types of 'traits' in Starmada: AE (well, kind of five, but two are degenerate).  The three interesting ones are Reliable traits, Swingy traits, Tactical traits.  The degenerate types are Awful and Awesome traits.

Swingy traits vs Reliable traits are fairly clear.  A swingy trait can perform strongly, but relies on luck to do so.  Examples of swingy traits include Fire-Linked, Variable RoF (and similar), and high damage ratings.  On average, you'll get exactly what you paid for by expectation, but the actual results vary wildly across games.  Reliable traits include good Acc values (3+, 4+), high RoF, Fire Control (when used to power Directed Damage), and Extra Hull Damage.  These are traits that are always good, and work to mitigate the effects of randomness on the way that you play.  Often you pay a premium for this reduction of randomness, but not necessarily.  An illustrative contrast is between Extra Hull Damage from Core, and Catastrophic from Rules Annex.  Both traits work to increase hull hits per die of damage, but they do it in different ways.  EHD guarantees a hull hit on every die of damage, even if you roll a 1 against an Armor-Plated target.  That's about as reliable as it gets.  Catastrophic works a bit differently.  Whenever you roll a hull hit with a catastrophic weapon, the target instead takes 1d6 hull hits.  Scary, and can lead to instant obliteration of a hull 6 or smaller target from a single die of damage...  but not reliably (only 1 in 12 times, or 1 in 18 against armor-plated targets).  Catastrophic is the poster child for swingy traits.  Another example is Countermeasures versus Armor Plating.  Countermeasures provides a nice, reliable -1 to all weapons fire against you, unless they have Fire Control.  The effectiveness of this actually varies based on the accuracy of their weapons, but it's never completely ineffective.  Armor Plating negates damage rolls of 1.  If your dice like to roll 1s, Armor Plating's great; it can negate huge piles of damage (but you might want to use different dice for firing...).  On the other hand, it's entirely possible to play a game with a fleet where every ship is Armor Plated and have AP negate exactly 0 hits.  It does happen.

Example from play: Matt fielded Catastrophic weapons extensively during our play of Admiralty Edition.  Most of the time, they were scary but not terribly effective, but there was one battle (the Dreadnought Match) where they really came into their own and just tore Alex to pieces.  Their primary value most of the time was really as terror weapons; in trying to stay out of the Catastrophic arcs, you might go places on the map you otherwise wouldn't, or you might split your fleet, and you often ended up staring into his Piercing +2 secondary guns, which were reliably good against targets of all types.  Because you really didn't want to try your luck against Cata...

Tactical traits are a third point on the triangle.  These traits are great if you have a good ability to predict your opponent (to borrow from Sirlin, they're powered by Yomi), and a good way to screw yourself over otherwise.  Cloaking is the canonical example, but dual-mode weapons, slow-firing weapons, and Screens are also tactical.  You almost always pay a premium for tactical traits, which is why you have to use them well for them to be cost-effective.  However, they're a lot of fun, and used wisely can be really, really good.  Arguably the Range-Based Foo traits are also tactical, though the Inverted versions can be used at a profit pretty reliably by 'dancing' at long range.

Example from play: Ah, Cloaking.  I initially started experimenting with Cloaking because by Eldar conversion to Starmada was performing terribly; speed and short-ranged weapons were just not cutting it.  Cloaking, however, gave them a whole new dimension and sent me on a winning streak; I don't recall ever having lost a game with the Cloakdar, though I did draw at least one (I know I did during their first game).  Cloaking let me choose the time, place, and manner of engagement, and let me focus my fire on small parts of the enemy fleet while avoiding retribution from the rest.  Matt and Tim avoided cloaking just based on the amount of work involved, while Jared tried it once but badly mispredicted Matt's movement and ended up right under his guns.

Awful traits are pretty self-explanatory.  They're traits which are just...  bad.  Mathematically, provably bad.  There aren't a whole lot of these in the game, fortunately, since Cricket did a pretty good job with the balance.  The two that I know of, unequivocally, are Anti-Fighter Batteries from the Imperial Starmada Sourcebook and Halves Shields from the Rules Annex.  AFBs are far too expensive for the degree of protection from fighters that they provide.  They're nice, because they can fire in a 360-degree arc, but range 1, 5+ to hit, and RoF 1 are all bad traits for anti-fighter weapons.  You want to hit fighters far away, and you want to hit them a bunch of times.  Further, AFBs boost both your ORAT and your DRAT, whereas a normal anti-fighter weapon would just boost your ORAT.  Since ORATs are usually higher and pricing works on square roots, the DRAT cost of AFBs just isn't worth it.  Halves Shields is the other flavor of bad.  It's actually pretty good...  but Piercing +2, also from the Annex is as good or better against all target classes, for the same price.  Piercing +2 is better against Shields 3, and exactly the same effectiveness against all other shield ratings.  Thus, there is mathematically no reason to ever use Halves Shields if Piercing +2 is available (ie, not banned).

Awesome traits are things which are too damn good not to use if available.  They include traits which are mathematically super-efficient, as well as traits whose only effective counter is those traits themselves.  The contents of this category are naturally contentious.  Generally-conceded traits here are Starship Exclusive and Ammo.  Other candidates for this category include the various shieldbreakers from the Annex, strikers, flotillas, repeating, G-arc weapons, and increased hits.  Personally, I tend to think that Stealth might be a bit too good too, but there is at least a kind of counter for Stealth (namely Inverted Ranged-Based traits).

Example from play: Ammo is disgustingly good.  I don't think we ever played a game where only one side used Ammo and that side didn't win.  My ammo-based disablers crippled Alex in the first round, Jared used ammo'd polecats from Hammer and Claw in his first game and won (one of a very few first-game wins), my 100-point one-shot torpedo boats annihilated Matt's 300ish-point battleship in Planetary Assault, and Jared used a one-shot area-effect shieldbreaker against Matt's short-ranged fleet for a bunch of shield damage in the opening round, which I believe turned into a win.  The trick with Ammo is that it lets you concentrate firepower across time.  For the same SU cost, you can have one weapon with no ammo limits, or five such weapons, each of which can fire exactly once.  Thus, you can get 5 times the firepower in the first round of firing.  This is the so-called "Glitter Fleet" idea you hear about on the forums.  It might be a bit more expensive in terms of CRAT...  but 5x firepower is more than enough to make up for it, and usually to wipe an enemy fleet.  And if it doesn't, you cede.  For bonus points, put Slow-Firing on your one-shot weapons.  No effective penalty for you, but makes 'em cheaper.

So at this point you're probably thinking, "OK, that's nice that you've split traits into five categories, but largely non-useful for me, the ship designer."  Not so!  Your use of these traits determines in large part how your fleet will play.  A fleet running strictly reliable traits will perform consistently, while a fleet full of swingy traits will sometimes win big and sometimes lose terribly.  A fleet with too many tactical traits will overburden the player's ability to guess and micromanage, and will likely lose unless those traits synergize well (Cloaking + Slow-Firing, for example), but one with one 'gimmick' tactical trait can play well and with a distinct style.  Awful traits should be avoided, and awesome traits should either be used universally or banned.

To build a fleet which is mechanically strong, you must understand which traits (and which combinations of traits) are mechanically strong.  To build a fleet that you will enjoy playing, you must know both how you prefer your fleets to 'feel', and how various properties of your ships influence their qualitative performance.  The best way to learn these things is to play fleets which vary across the reliable / swingy / tactical scale and see which you like most.  I tend towards tactical / reliable, while Matt for example likes to use swingy main guns and reliable secondaries.  That sort of thing.

There's a lot more to say on this topic.  In particular, I'd like to make clear the math behind Repeating, varying Acc values, shield-breaking traits and shields in general, range and speed, and damage and degradation (including flotillas).  This may have to become a regular column (until Nova comes out...  guess I'll just start talking about Nova when that happens).