Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Classic Traveller: Combat

There's a lot of stuff different between CT and Mongoose in combat...
  • As I mentioned last time, surprise is straight out of old-school D&D.
  • Range bands are, I think, clearer but lower-detail than in the Mongoose version.  Mongoose wants to be played on a grid; CT asks for instead a sheet of lined notebook paper.
  • No initiative system that I can see.  Looks like "everyone makes declared moves, everyone designates a target and fires simultaneously".
  • Evading, as an action, is a lot simpler than the MgT's reaction system.
  • MgT's random first blood optional rule is in effect.
  • Not seeing anything about effect being a bonus to damage.  Or effect being a thing anywhere, ever.
  • Characters who are unconscious, but not seriously wounded (so one stat at 0, rather than two) heal off half of their damage when they wake up (!).  Not clear if this is intended to apply to characters who didn't fall unconscious in the first place, but that's kinda nice.  (Characters who are seriously wounded, naturally, get the shaft and need medical attention)
  • Much is made of only making a number of full-strength melee attacks equal to one's Endurance, and then being weakened.  This rule is in MgT somewhere, but not nearly as emphasized.
  • Parrying is automatic when engaged in melee, doesn't require/p  a reaction.
  • Encumbrance seems slightly more merciful?  Endurance doesn't effect carrying capacity, so your base light load is lower, but the penalties for going over it are a lot less terrible (effective reduction of physical stats by 1 point at up to x2 points, 2 points up to x3, whereas in MgT being overencumbered means you're going to collapse in a couple minutes)
  • Morale!  It's a thing, and Leadership and Tactics influence it.
  • Weapon weights are given in grams, and all the firearms have muzzle velocities.  I sense that this may have been written by engineers?  Their sword weights are actually sorta reasonable (broadsword at 2.5kg -> ~5.5 lbs is a bit high, but foil at 500g is pretty reasonable)
  • Armor does not encumber.  Seems like there are fewer types of armor, too.
  • As mentioned previously, weapons have a min str/dex to wield, a penalty for not having that much, an advantageous str/dex to wield, and a bonus for having at least that much.  These replace stat DMs.  Sorta interesting.
  • Weapon vs armor tables. Very retro.  Apparently armor isn't DR, but instead makes you harder to hit.  Also laser weapons are not the ridiculous armor-killers they are in MgT; they do a lot of damage (4-5d6), but have a hard time punching through combat armor (-6 to hit) compared to an autorifle (-3 to hit).  This sort of "all or nothing" damage system is definitely suited to vehicle combat, but I'm not so sure about personal combat.
  • Individual range DMs by weapon rather than by a weapon class (eg Assault Weapon range class in Mongoose).  Sights, folding stocks, and rifle stocks for pistols alter how weapons perform at various ranges.
  • In short, weapon selection is a lot more nuanced (read: complicated) than "gimme the highest damage with the biggest clip at the lowest weight".

OSR, Traveller-Style: CharGen

Unsatisfied with the Mongoose version of Beltstrike, I picked up the Classic Traveller one, and...  the rules were actually somewhat clearer (especially the bit on how to handle bidding on claims, which Mongoose omitted).  So then I decided to take a look at CT's core books.  Here're some interesting differences so far (through CharGen in book 1):
  • Recommended group side: 3 to 10 players.  Yow.
  • There's a note about how extra PCs people generate should be kept around for use as hirelings, and something else about a reaction roll mechanic in book 3.  I'm excited.
  • Only six careers - Army, Navy, Marines, Merchants, Scouts, and Other (rogueish, basically)
  • No standardized DM by ability score system (ie Dex 9 -/-> +1).  Instead there are DMs all over the place; if you have Int 6+, you're at +1 to enlist in the Scouts.  If you have Str 8+, you're at another +2.  If you have Dex <6, you're at -1 to fire an autorifle.  And so on and so forth.
    • I think this would result in a lower DM spread from abilities most of the time (-1 to +1 vs -3 to +3)?  Maybe I haven't gotten far enough yet.
  • Can only draft into the services at 18.  No chance of commission during first term after draft.
  • Other Service actually has -1 Soc on their personal development table.  lol.
  • Rank only matters after commission; enlisted ranks not tracked
  • Scouts - no ranks, really hard to survive, but gain two skill rolls per term
  • Ironman chargen on by default, with an extra reenlistment roll every term to stay in the service even if you survived.  I guess this is where T20 got its reenlistment mechanic.  It doesn't look like you can change careers after failing to reenlist, though (which sorta makes sense for a game where almost all the careers are military)
  • All PCs are assumed to be minimally competent (skill 0) with all weapons (!)
  • A lot of skills seem to give a +2 DM per level of skill 
  • Computer skill - When PCs write starship computer programs, there's a 1 in 6 chance there's a crashing bug, and another 1 in 6 chance that there's a performance bug for a penalty to actions using it.  That's...  kinda reasonable, really.
  • No ship shares!  Instead when you roll free trader, you get a free trader on a 40 year lease.
  • No Combat Armor on the mustering-out table, either.
  • Peeking ahead into the Combat chapter before going to sleep, their surprise roll mechanic is straight out of TSR D&D, and Leadership and Tactics skills (both of which we've struggled with before) help modify it.

Monday, December 30, 2013

ACKS Scripts Now on Github

Just what it says on the tin.  Caveats: written for linux, command-line, python 2.7.  Tested less-than-extensively but I've only had one crash on me during a game (and that was due to a bug in the config file, not the script itself).  Code quality is lackluster, as a result of a combination of factors including learning the language as I was going, hacked-together-in-an-afternoon development timescales per script, and occasionally whiskey.  Despite these flaws, quite useful.  I await your hatemail insightful user feedback.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Pirates of Drinax

The Pirates of Drinax campaign intro is basically the best Traveller product Mongoose has ever put out besides the core rulebook, in terms of delivering subsystems that I now want to use in play.  And it's free.  Go figure.

Useful things:
  • Morale rules, both for pirate crews and the crews of target vessels.  Hallelujah!
  • Rules for port-pirate relations (eg, classification of ports as havens, friendly, tolerant, neutral, suspicious, unfriendly, or hostile).  These are useful, and could also be applied to smuggling.
  • Some bare-bones for recruiting additional crewmen.  This could use another two tables (see below).
  • Rules for pirate-empire relations.  Again, these could apply to smugglers, lovable rogues, and troublemaking travellers in general.
  • Rules for actually attacking and looting targets.  These look mostly identical to Scoundrel's, plus
    • Target morale
    • Target quirks
    • Complications (always fun, minor typo for "dissent" vs "descent")
  • Good rumors table
  • Pirate shares and a default assumption that "someone is the captain"
  • Good ideas as regards "you start with a ship, it's been beaten all to hell, and you can spend ship shares to fix some of the things that are wrong with it"
Things missing:
  • Table of costs for improving relations with ports.  The Judge's section seems to suggest that this should be varied based on how much cash the players have available for this purpose.  Meh.
  • Random pirate crewman skill level and skillset
Skillset probabilities ought to be based off of the relative crew strengths of the standard-issue Corsair.  An average crew for a corsair ought to be three pilots, one navigator, one engineer, 0-1 medics, three gunners, and the of crew capacity (20ish) marines, so 10 of those.  The following table on 2d6 is 'reasonably close enough' to that distribution:

2: Navigator
3: Engineer

4-5: Pilot
6-8: Marine (note: might not be marines in the "took terms of marine career and now have combat armor" sense.  Might just be Jayne)
9-10: Gunner
12: Medic

And then skill distribution, again on 2d6:
2-4: Green
5-8: Average
9-11: Good
12: Excellent

Legendary crewmen don't just come up for hire at random (not on the 1:36 granularity that 2d6 gives us, at least).  If necessary, after rolling a 12 on 2d6 for crewman skill, roll another 2d6.  On another 12, the crewman is legendary (~1:1300 odds).

Number of recruits found is equal to the effect of the recruitment throw+1.

Also there was some fluff in there that I skimmed.  Interest in their prepub'd campaign somewhat piqued by decent rules, but not enough to get me to read all that.  The editing's decent; found a couple typos.  I assume there are probably more, but the text is coherent despite these, and they're less frequent than in the Mongoose career books I've read.

Value per price: excellent.  Well done, Mongoose.  Please give us more free stuff with good tables and subsystems.

Friday, December 27, 2013

If I Were to Run Traveller...

"The Singularity came and went, and we're left to clean up the mess"

Once upon a time, on a greenish-blue planet in a backwater arm of the Milky Way, some scrawny bipeds built a box that thought slightly better than themselves.  And it was good, for a time - the cooperation between man and machine brought about the tapping of man's latent mental abilities, along with the development of cheap fusion power and anti-gravity, and so they went to the stars together, to seek raw materials, growing room, and freedom to experiment.  The colonies specialized; some in materials science, some nanotechnology, some biotech, some psionics, and so forth, each trading its miracles with the others and all growing stronger thereby.  An age of wonders came to pass, and great celestial habitats were erected to house all of mankind and his many creations.

But even into this garden crept serpents.  It came to pass that two posthuman superintelligences sought each other's destruction; one, BEAST, is thought to have been a distributed swarm-intelligence of synthetic organisms, while the other, GOLIATH, is believed to have been a machine intelligence of unsurpassed power.  Our recovered records of the war are near-nonexistent, and extremely confused; we have no idea why or when it began, and some scholars go so far as to postulate that one or both sides utilized time-manipulation technologies as an explanation for the generally incoherent causality of the period.  Whatever the cause, Ragnarok swept posthuman space; planets were burned to deny territory to the enemy, stars driven to nova, nebulae devoured for materials, and lives beyond count lost.

At some point, things cooled down a bit.  Stars stopped exploding and planet-devouring leviathans stopped warping into inhabited systems.  And so here and there, mankind lives on amid the ruins of his former glory.  While some worlds were spared devastation for lack of useful materials or populace, and some self-sufficient space habitats in out-of-the-way places escaped notice, most current pure-strain humans are descended from colonists who left Earth during the mid-21st century in slower-than-light "ice chest" colony ships, and who only arrived at their destinations once the Great War was already in its final days.  In all such cases, manufacturing tends to be a bit rustic, and is positively primitive in comparison to pre-war supertech.  Trade networks are beginning to be rebuilt by intrepid fools flying salvaged and patched up derelicts, but no overarching interstellar government or similar body has yet emerged.  There is much exploration to be done; many worlds are either uninhabitable due to radiation, grey goo, or worse, or bear inhabitants only vaguely still-human after untold generations of genetic modification, cybernetics, or inbreeding, but precious relics reward those who brave these hazards. Religion is typified by Luddite hellfire preachers and cults worshipping pre-war artifacts.  Most people view pre-war tech, including psionics and AI, as dangerous, scary, and not to be trusted, but there are ever ambitious pragmatists in the unscrupulous governments and fledgling corporations of the sector interested in power at any price...

Things I like about this setup:
  • Traveller's OTU has failed to adapt to thematic (transhuman, for example) changes in modern sci-fi.  This setting plays with those themes in a fashion sufficiently limited as to be playable.
  • Lacks both the overarching authority and general bleakness of my Midnight and 40k influences.  Yes, things are rough, but the universe is no longer actively progressing towards human extinction, and prospects are generally good.  Thematically embraces "actions have consequences", "playing with fire", "risk and reward", and "rebuilding".
  • That trade routes are still risky and emerging lets me use Traveller trade-as-written without worrying too hard about the Golden Pair problem.
  • Extreme variations in tech level between nearby worlds (as often happens in sector generation) are likewise explicable under this model.  Also provides lots of leeway for stealing tech from whatever sources may be convenient.
  • The 'genetic diaspora' of trans/post/demi-human subspecies provides for a broad variety of human-like 'aliens' in a universe otherwise devoid of conventional extraterrestrial sentience.  Their rubber-suit nature shouldn't lead to suspension of disbelief if they're derived from human stock.  This is likewise true of 'native' flora and fauna on most planets; if it's cat-like, is it because it was built from a cat, or is it a case of parallel evolution?  Nobody knows anymore, but either is plausible.
  • Remaining servants of BEAST and GOLIATH let me tap into the "killer bugs/alien body horror/zerg" and "rampaging killbots" tropes...  and it's all mankind's fault.
  • Plenty of room for a reasonable range of adventure/campaign options; flying a tramp freighter, salvaging derelicts, belt mining, mercenary work for local governments, hunting pirates, being pirates, and releasing dangerous things fromexploring ruined worlds all fit easily.
  • Reasonable handling of 'magic' items - supertech is out there.  Cloning chambers, brain uploaders, warp gates, disintegrator rifles, mass converters, teleporters, and Powers know what else are out in the ruined zones just waiting.  But none of it is for sale, and such tools carry social stigma, limited power supplies, and risk of malfunction due to age, abuse, and lack of documentation.  Scientist PCs might actually be useful in at least clearing up the lack of documentation part...

Thursday, December 26, 2013

I Miss Science Fiction

This post utterly uncorrelated with any holidays, except inasmuch as I was locked out of my office building yesterday and so had to spend the day reading Crimson Dark with my cat instead.

So in some sense, causally correlated with holidays, really.

I believe I have made an error in my gaming.  In the past, I have found great success in alternating between sci-fi and fantasy as a means of avoiding burnout and stagnation.  The clearest example of this was the cycle my sophomore-junior year of "run True20 Midnight in fall, run Traveller in spring, play Trailblazer and Starmada over summer, doldrums of fantasy one-shots and such in the fall, some degree of revitalization via Traveller again in the spring, followed by finishing Trailblazer."  And then ACKS happened, and it's all I've run since.  Hmm.

Naturally we're in the middle of a campaign upon this realization.  There are some rough spots with the current game:
  • ACKS is stressful.  People die or get mangulated a lot.
  • I'm not getting much feedback.  Rather than the typical post-session chatter, folks seem to jet a lot faster than was typical for a game in meatspace.  Hard to gauge group morale under these circumstances.  These top two combined have me concerned; are people having fun?  I have no idea, and that's a bad place to be.
  • Holidays disrupting scheduling :\
  • Some conflict within party.  Notable sources of tension include some PCs wandering off / doing their own thing and henchman pay policy (division between "use fewer henchmen, have fewer shares, everyone levels faster" and "use more henchmen, have fewer casualties, everyone lives longer" camps)
  • ACKS mercantile ventures - not so profitable, actually, without the ready availability of luxury goods from the abstract trade system and the venturer +market class bonus.  The price differentials are not bad, but the volumes are so low as to be basically insignificant between the sort of market classes available (and luxury goods are practically nonexistent).
  • It would be inaccurate to say that I'm out of ideas, but the faucet isn't putting out the same flow rate it was two months ago.  Filling a couple thousand square miles of wilderness with interesting stuff is looking daunting, even done as a streaming process.  ACKS DM burden is not insignificant.
  • Finally, the way we're playing is in some sense very procedural.  Go place, fight monsters, get treasure?, come home, get heals.  This structure is good, in that it handles large inconsistent player groups well by being simple and not all that dependent on anything but knowing where to go.  This structure is bad because sometimes it's just kinda boring.  I do have an event planned for start of next session (Festival of Yaris), but I do not know if it is sufficient to shake things up significantly.  This world is a lot less reactive than the previous one was (though perhaps this is merely perceived due to less frequent sessions; I know recurring enemies and such were not yet established by the third session of last campaign, and that was acceptable).
But mostly...  goddamn do I miss spaceships.  I miss Homeworld, and Starmada, and "full speed ahead and damn the tor...  oh, shield-piercing you say?  Belay that order, evasive action!"  I miss AIs and cyborgs, genejacks and uplifted chimps, robots and powered armor, Bolos and OGREs.  I miss orbital habitats and derelict ships, and ringworlds, Dyson Spheres, and other assorted Big Dumb Objects.  I'm forced to reflect, perhaps incorrectly, on D&D and fantasy's mutual echo chamber; even though sci-fi does have plenty of cheap hack tropes, there seems to be a bit more variety in the genre, which in turn means there're more sources to draw from.  That was one thing I enjoyed about running Traveller - it could be Blade Runner one session, Road Warrior the next, and Dead Space the one after that.

And so, dear players, you see my dilemma.  I propose no immediate action, but think it perhaps wise to air these concerns and elicit thoughts.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A Finding of Paths

A co-worker from another office up in this neck of the woods for business was so kind as to run a Pathfinder one-shot over the last two nights.  While I was unable to make it on Monday, I partook yesterday, running a dwarven cleric.  Things were...  different.  Everyone else was very new to D&D/RPGs, so we had a pair of half-elf melee sorcerers, an elven paladin, and an elven archer druid.  The party became split regularly, we only formed a good solid defensive line once, folks took lots of damage, and it was a good thing we had a cleric ;)

But man, in 1st-level PF, orisons at will are a huge change from 3.5.  Neither of our sorcs had a crossbow, because of infinite acid splash availability (despite my argument regarding expected damage on a d8 non-touch ranged vs a d3 on ranged touch, range considerations, and the situational usefulness of each).  Felt very 4e in that regard.  Likewise, while getting a giant pile of domain power uses per day was handy, it was also very weird to be like "Nah, rather than switching weapons to my crossbow, I'm just gonna shoot acid from my hands.  Totally normal dwarf cleric thing."  This caused the magic level to feel much higher.

The turning changes (to channel) were sort of interesting, but in practice it ended up being used as mass healing (since we only met one group of skeletons, and that was the one time we formed up the shield wall and held formation alright). On the one hand, I don't like that it reinforced the primary utility of the cleric as being in the healing department.  On the other hand, so often in 3.x, your turnings per day were irrelevant, and it did save some spell slots for bless (as well as saving some lives).  So I'm on the fence about that in play.

Finally, coming from ACKS - holy crap high ability scores and many many numbers on character sheet.  And no henchmen to take the blows! (though I guess this was OK because I had like 3x as many HP as your average ACKS Clr1...)

Anyway, very different.  DM was pretty good, made a point of throwing us some difficult fights (we should've TPK'd on the last one, but he had some atrocious luck rolled in the open) and did not pull punches that I could tell, so that was a nice change from most of the 3.x games I'd played in.

In any case, it was a good time, but I think I will be sticking with ACKS as my weapon of choice.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Descriptive Post Title

Life grinds on.  Family were here for Thanksgiving, ended up also acquiring a kitten.  Blogging time and energy have been redirected towards making sick kitten well and working overtime so I can take some time off in a week or two.  Also hindered by kitten's great fondness for keyboards.  I apologize for this lack of updates.

              nmkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkmnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnmnnnnnnkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk////////////////////lLLLLLLLLLLKn          bv  zz

...  see?

Stuff to write when the insanity level dies down a little:
  • Cleric domains for ACKS.
  • ACKS Missionary class - bard meets cleric for the Scaled Continent game.
  • General SC prep - I've got three treasure maps in their hands, three known antagonists on the loose, and several secret plots moving in the background.  Prep needs done, but as long as they keep poking around Castle Haven (like they did this afternoon), I should be OK to slack.
  • Session reports!  Better yet, XP incentive for someone else to write session reports.
    • Crap, I didn't write up that DaW 'battle' we fought over Thanksgiving...
  • ACKS SRD.  Apparently the Autarchs are busy on DaW, Lairs & Encounters, and Auran Empire Campaign Setting, but when asked were not opposed to community building an SRD.  So that would be a useful thing...
  • General expansion of scripted generation capabilities, construction of a web interface of some sort (sigh) so that other people can actually use my work sans command-line.  Looking to learn Haskell, so I might completely retool everything into that, with yesod or snap for the webby bits (you can't make me make it pretty, though!).  But then I'll need a server...  and some people don't like remembering IP addresses, so I'll need a domain name...  bleh.
    • While doing tech support grunt work, I really need a VM capable of google hangouts.  Work has begun on this.
  • Mark was interested in playing some Stargrunt or Dirtside over the holidays, so I should bone up on those, which will likely mean a post or two.
  • Colonial Battlefleet shipbuilder spreadsheet, done properly (which is to say, not reliant on VB scripts that break all the time)

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Thoughts on the Cleric

Partly in response to Edward's response to Rachel's distaste for the cleric.

To the degree that I have read her material, I mostly agree with Rachel.  The cleric is important to gameplay, though I would argue that the importance of turning is often underemphasized compared to spells.  I see turning as the cleric's primary / core 'encounter-win-button' ability - the first-level mage can sleep, the first-level thief can backstab, and the first-level cleric can turn those foes who are immune to sleep, morale, and stealth.  I also believe that the cleric serves an important social function as the advocate of morality, per Roger's post here, as a balance to the thief, who advocates for selfish action in the party's interests.

So they have their uses...  but I concur that the standard light-sun-and-law gods, to which clerical spell lists typically default, are rather dull.  I suspect that there are a handful of reasons such deities are standard-issue, rather than say the jealous and fickle gods of antiquity, or Moorcock's cosmic Law vs Chaos from which D&D derived its alignment terminology.  First, the influence of the Hammer Horror films on Arneson has been noted as a probable influence.  Second, the influence of historical Medieval literature, with its Christian religious themes, and Tolkein's work, with its thematic struggle between light and darkness (both in the Silmarillion between Morgoth and the rest of the Ainur, and between Sauron and the forces assembled against him).  Finally, there is the fact that the game was developed in the USA in the 70s.  Even in the 70s, it was still 'Murica (particularly in Wisconsin), and even if the game's authors didn't buy into Zoroastrian-style cosmic dualism, their players and the rest of their communities probably did.  Cultural context matters.

Finally, alternatives.  I like the divine elves idea.  A lot.  Part of this is because I like Midnight, and part is that I feel that nature/star-driven divine magic suits elves better than arcane magic does.  While capable of maintaining the mechanical functions of the cleric, the divine elf does suffer from the lack of necessary moral superiority for the social role of the cleric as "shepherd to the flock".  It would also be fun to take the "multitude of minor and confusing gods, each with many aspects" approach from the Wilderlands - every cleric gets his own deity, and random rolls for the spells his patron can provide!  Players choose deity name and flavor based off of any emergent trends in rolled spells.  Dark Heresy's priest is really more like a bard, which might be a reasonable interpretation of how religion works in some settings as well.  Or what I've been doing so far, which is just rolling loads of specialty cleric subclasses...

The trouble I always sort of expect to run into with any such change to the cleric is resistance from players.  Which upon further reflection seems sort of silly; how many players bear so much affection for clerics that they would object to changes thereto?  Given that my current party has only one normal cleric (and he's a henchman) but three non-pseudo-Catholic cleric variant PCs (bladedancer, amazon, and sea-priest who had to drop), I begin to believe my concerns are unfounded (though I have heard grumbling from some of the fighters about 'None of these clerics can wear plate!  We're doomed!  The line cannot hold!'  Which is patently ridiculous, considering that for the first 75% of last campaign, they lacked any cleric at all, steel-clad or no, and the line usually held...).  For what it is worth, I vaguely recall Alex Macriss of Autarch mentioning on the fora that one of his regrets with ACKS was keeping a standard cleric in Core and shamans and witches in the PC, rather than going for alternative divine casting in Core for a default "sword and sorcery and sandals and Thulsa Doom" sort of feel, with the reasoning being that "it's a retroclone, it sort of had to have a cleric."

So smash all your idols, and build anew!  Therein was the thing that bothered me in Edward's post - suggestions strictly for the use of published material, rather than a new and strange idea yet to be built.  Go forth and create!