Monday, October 22, 2012

How Traveller Is Supposed To Work

Two games of Mongoose Traveller have been run in these parts in the last...  I guess two years now?  In both cases, good times were had by all and we were left with good impressions of the system, but it still like things were running a little bit off.  Kind of that feeling when your laptop works but it takes five minutes to resume from suspend, or you're driving cross-country and your car's getting fine gas mileage but making funky noises.  It worked, but not like it was supposed to.

Now, after running ACKS, I think I might've hit on how it's supposed to go.  What got me thinking was the importance of treasure in ACKS, and another blogger (I think it might have been Beedo?)'s question about "How is trade in Traveller actually supposed to work in play?".  PCs in ACKS really care about treasure because it is the main source of XP for levelling, and in play I think it would be fair to say that Greed is one of the primary factors in PC decision making (the other three being Fear, Revenge, and Confusion).  Smart play revolves around exploring the dungeon cautiously, finding unguarded treasure, and offing as few monsters as you have to in order to get the goods and get out.  So my line of inquiry ran, "Traveller's an old game, with as lethal a combat system as Old D&D, and where avoiding fights is similarly smart; I wonder if it emphasized monetary treasure more heavily than we thought too, and we just didn't notice?"

Looking at MongTrav's rules (hey, it's pretty close to Classic, and it's what I have to work with, alright?), I think this might be so.  There's a heck of a lot of rules about miscellaneous expenses - lifestyle, docking, fuel, maintenance, ammunition, life support, crew salary, cargo hauling fees, fines, and of course the all-important starship loan.  The rules for this cover more pages than the rules for combat.  The rules on making money, via hauling mail, bulk cargo, passengers, or speculative cargo (or through patrons) do likewise, with further methods appearing in the supplements - salvage, gambling, and mining in Scoundrel, and even in the combat-oriented Mercenary book, we got about as much page space dedicated to a system for making money through mercenary contracts as to new combat rules.

So, what the distribution of the rules in the book is telling us is that in Traveller, money is supposed to be kind of a big deal.  Now, in our last two Trav games, money was not a motivator for adventure in the slightest.  In the first game, the crew had a free scout ship, and were able to cover maintenance costs more-or-less without effort.  This freed them to go gallivanting across the galaxy, gathering artifacts releasing ancient evils.  In the second, I had a character design, a plan, and enough starting capital to make terrifying amounts of money despite the large starship loan hanging over our heads.  And by god, we made every payment on time, despite being wanted men for grand capital ship theft, possession of alien artifacts, and precipitation of international incidents, with enough money left over to run for congress and retire to a private island on that planet whose biosphere we wrecked (long story, but I got the real estate for a song...) with many good (well, better) deeds to our names; we rescued the citizens from their tyrannical mad AI-driven government, saved the human species from an ancient evil, established peaceful relations with the crystal men, performed original Nobel-winning research on ancient alien cultures, and brought civilization (and toothpaste) to the savages.  We were doing the "filthy rich and turning our prodigious resources to the greater good" thing, basically.

So, looking at these two games, I believe that lack of motivation to money stemmed in the first case from a lack of starship loan and in the second from an overabundance of starting capital.   A couple megacredits (like we had) is way more money than most groups of travellers could be expected to start with; 200-300kCr is a more reasonable, if still optimistic estimate.  That's enough to cover the starship loan for a month or two while you look for work, maybe run a little speculative cargo, but nothing like the kind of dealing in radioactives I was doing right out of the gate last time.  So you stay above water for a little while, but eventually your starting funds begin to dry up; you lose on a speculative cargo deal, pirates steal your goods, the plasma compressor breaks and you have to replace it, and you find yourself low on cash.  Contract trade won't cover the mortgage (not with the size of your hold), so you start hunting for patrons, and eventually you end up close on the end of the month and desperate enough that you take a job from a seedy character and don't look too close at the fine print, because no way is it worse than being impounded and having jump tracers on your tail at every port of call.  Of course, it turns out that it is, and then you end up on somebody's bad side; could be Johnny Law if you're moving illegal goods, could be organized crime, or could be that something spooky's afoot and you're in the middle of it.  Meanwhile you're still trying to cover the bills despite these entanglements, and you get even more desperate; you're living from job to job, skipping monthly maintenance and hoping you don't combust on reentry, sleeping with one eye open in case Customs Enforcement comes knocking, trusting nobody, thinking about turning to piracy, and absolutely praying for the dice to roll your way and give you that one big score that'll let you settle your debts and retire someplace rustic under a new name.  And then the fun really starts.

If you're smart and lucky, you end up in the company of Malcolm Reynolds, Jim Raynor, and Han Solo; you hold things together long enough to pick the right side of the political upheaval, help 'em win, get the girl, pull off the big heist, and fly off into the trinary sunset.  If you're not...  well, MongTrav is based off of Classic Traveller, which is the Old School, friend.  This is a game where you can die in chargen, and if you're stupid or unlucky in play, you could end up with your ship grounded and your sorry smuggler butt in jail for 20 to life.  Beats being frozen in carbonite, anyways.

So yeah.  You might lose.  It might even be inevitable; I haven't really run the numbers on a 'normal' party.  It probably depends on how merciful your GM is with patrons and how the law levels are in your sector, really.  But this is a game from the late 70s, created by the same folks who made a 2300AD RPG, and popular in Britain... so I can't help but wonder if there might be something of the punks here.  Is their rallying cry, "No future!", the secret and intensely ironic intended epitaph of the heroes of Traveller?  I am not qualified to say; if any of you, my dear readers, happen to know, I'd very much love to hear.  I do think it safe to conclude, though, that the next time I run Traveller, it will be in this Old School fashion, where resource management and risk management are paramount, things get cut close to the wire, and sometimes, you lose spectacularly.  There's always a good story to get out of it, though.

Maybe next semester...  I still have a bunch of ACKS PCs to kill first.

Follow-up post


  1. I don't have any deep insights into the creation of Traveller, but I agree with your assessment that Traveller is at its best when players are desperate for a few credits.

    One of the things I like about CT is that characters are easy and fun to make, so even if you die in an adventure, you can rather easily roll up another character while the rest of the players are finishing off the encounter. Assuming your party is not just a loose confederation of people, but an actual "small business", the new character can almost immediately be hired on to replace the previous character. Or you could be creating one of the existing players' friends or cousins - "Yeah, that's too bad about Alex, but I have a cousin on-world who would probably like to sign on for a piece of the action...."

    1. Good points on PC replacement - it kind of inspired my post for tomorrow. Also good to hear that I'm not raving into the black here :P