Saturday, July 25, 2020

Classic Traveller: Striker

Rod Thompson suggested that I look into Striker for Classic Traveller's vehicular combat system.  I picked up the first edition and it turned out to be quite interesting!  My points for comparison are Stargrunt, Dirtside, Battletech, OGRE, and Epic.

If you want to do Hammer's Slammers with Classic Traveller, this is The Correct Thing.

This is the sort of system that I would have adored in high school and college.  Now...  maybe it would work better with a computer for a referee.  Looking at the structure of orders that you can give a normal-initiative unit, it looks a lot like writing a program.

The approach to dealing with orders and initiative is interesting and makes a lot of sense for a hybrid wargame-RPG.  I could definitely see it being frustrating and a fair bit of overhead if not automated, though.

I like that, compared to Stargrunt, infantry operates in stands.  I dislike that you still have to track the state of every infantryman.  The scale is generally more zoomed-out than Stargrunt but more zoomed-in than Dirtside, which I think is "about right".

Vehicle damage is more complicated than Dirtside and less complicated than Battletech.  I think Mongoose Traveller's vehicle damage system is a bit simpler.

The layout and organization do not lend themselves well to reading through and understanding the system.  All of the tables are at the very end, and the rules are depth-first rather than establishing general principles and then enumerating exceptions and special cases (so, for example, indirect fire missions come between infantry firing and resolution of damage).  A lot of things that I would ordinarily consider "rules" are sort of punted out into tables which are far from the relevant text.  I feel like after a cursory read I still didn't have a good idea of how firing on vehicles works.

I was ever so slightly disappointed that there was no fission powerplant option - it would've been funny to build a fission ramjet missile-drone where you don't even need a payload, just a powerplant that explodes on impact.  And support for AI, of course, is negligible (drones are remote-controlled).  Support for enormous OGRE-style tanks seems fine but they will need a lot of crew.  No mechs / walker suspension type but it wouldn't be too hard to add.  On the upside, I'm pretty sure you can build gatling mortars with nuclear shells.  Not that you should, but the point of design systems is designing ridiculous things (...  right?).

I'm...  not sure if there's a way to arm infantry with nuclear weapons.  I think it might be possible to put one in a man-portable missile, but there's the additional requirement for vehicle-carried nukes that they be shielded storage containers with a bunch of extra mass.  So it would be dodgy.

On the other hand, you could absolutely give an infantryman a 9kg 8.5cm mortar round and a detonator, and he could carry it around at full movement speed under the encumbrance rules.  I'm not clear on the morale implications of suicide units, but if you want to model ISIS, infested terrans, or banelings, it wouldn't be hard (though the bang on a single 8.5cm mortar round is not spectacular; at TL5 they're comparable to a TL11 rifle grenade, while at TL11 parity they have about double the blast area and slightly better armor penetration.  And that's before the errata that nerfed TL scaling on HE artillery like that).

No flamethrowers?  How am I to werf flammen and/or barbeque aliens?  Plasma guns with 250m effective range just aren't quite the same.

It would be funny to add a "biological metabolism" powerplant type to the design system for eg carnifexes and other vehicle-sized bugs, with range/endurance calculated based on carried fat stores (or...  alcohol bladders, since it's almost as energy-dense as fats, and alcohol-based metabolisms would be funny).  I guess it's also worth considering that if an animal can operate in vacuum, it must also be carrying its own oxidizers?  And in order to not overheat in the insulation of vacuum, maybe you pump your heat into your metabolism's exhaust gases, which you then vent?

I hadn't looked at the rules for combat on planets with odd characteristics until the oxygen question got me curious and Striker does indeed ban air-breathing engines in certain atmosphere types (and lasers are more effective in such atmospheres, for lack of scatter).  Also: rules for tiny worlds where the horizon might only be 2km away and there's very little gravity.

It tickles my fancy that on very small worlds, artillery pieces could attain muzzle velocities higher than escape velocity (eg, the Paris Gun had a muzzle velocity of almost 1700 m/s, while Pluto's escape velocity is only around 1200 m/s), and what goes up might not come back down if your smallest available unit of propellant is too big.  Not that Striker has rules for this, but it's the sort of thing the system gets you thinking about.

I like that you can equip a weapon with multiple types of fire control.  I suspect the intention here is to let you equip lasers with both direct fire and point defense fire control, but I like that it would let you do Starcraft-style siege tanks that can fire both as artillery and direct fire.

The whole initiative system might actually make adding eg AI and weird command structures like tyranids easy.  Your low-initiative AI troops need constant supervision and wedge (or revert to instinctive behavior) if not actively controlled.  Your normal-initiative AI troops, your armored vehicles with an expert system in them, need orders.  Maybe giving them orders takes double the normal time because you have to be very careful with your language, but they're immune to panic.  The existing Drone Vehicle rules actually work just fine for this sort of AI.  And then high-initiative AIs are just like high-initiative meatbrains, with full sentience and autonomy, but self-awareness comes at the cost of morale.

The inclusion of pikes and broadswords on the melee weapons table makes me want to abuse this system by running medieval combats with it.  We need shields, bows, and javelins too though.  Aaand maybe to change the ground-scale so that your stand of 4 guys with pikes isn't covering a linear area of 30m.

(Bonus: biological powerplant, legged suspension, megawatt plasma cannon "breath weapon" dragons.  Not that powering a megawatt with biological scaling laws is really workable, you'd need to mass a couple of hundred thousand metric tons to have that sort of output continuously, but it's fun to play with)

Come to think of it, since there are revolvers, early gatling guns, and rules for riding animals, Wild West combats might be viable too.  Tweak bolt-action rifles down to lever-action and add bows and you're good to go (pardner).

Zhodani teleport-commandos in battledress with plasma guns are a daunting prospect.

I think I mostly like the handling of infantry armor penetration here, where you roll 2d6, add the weapon's armor penetration score, subtract the target's armor score, and index into a table of hit severity.  You make tradeoffs in ammunition selection, since high-explosive ammunition does more severe hits but has lower penetration than sabot.  This is how they dodge the problem that Mongoose Traveller has with armor as DR, where anything that can hurt a guy in battle dress kills anyone else instantly - sabot ammunition does less damage to lightly-armored guys in Striker than HE ammunition, but has a better chance of hurting the guys in heavy armor.

I'm a little surprised that I'm not seeing any rules for readying actions, like Stargrunt's overwatch?  But I guess in a system that is all about orders, "go to that hill and fire on any enemies that come within xx range" is just a thing you can do without a special rule maybe?  Is that the intent of the segment of the fire phase where the other player's units fire, to do fire in reaction to your movement?  I wish the rules were clearer about this; the Indirect Fire section has a paragraph on "When Units Fire", but there isn't one like that for Direct Fire.  There are also basically no sidebar-style examples of how rules are supposed to work, and looking for after-action reports or youtube videos was, of course, fruitless.  I guess I the old Citizens of the Imperium forums are probably the right venue for this question?

I think the combat rules are rather heavy for use as a mass combat add-on to Traveller RPG play, and the command-and-control is a little heavy/annoying for use as a miniatures combat game.  But it's a thought-provoking set of rules and would probably be a fun toolkit to fiddle with.

Bonus: buried in the back of the Advanced Rules is a section on computing the planetary domestic product of different world types in Traveller, for the purpose of figuring their military spending, of course.  This would be a hilarious launching point for "domain" gameplay.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Classic Traveller: Mercenary

Schlock Mercenary is nearing the end of its 20-year run (with no missed daily updates, which is damned impressive).  Threads are coming together and I decided to read through a bunch of the archives to remind myself who was where why, and it all got me thinking about Traveller, specifically the Mercenary supplement.

I've always been a little disappointed with Mongoose's Mercenary supplement, but I was reminded of my project of reading through the Classic Traveller core and how parts of it compared favorably to some of Mongoose's material, and decided to give Classic Traveller Book 4: Mercenary a read too.

CT Merc is 60 pages to MGT's 110.

I always thought MGT Merc's mercenary-specific careers were sort of dumb.  I am pleased with their absence in CT.

I rolled up a couple of characters with Mercenary's character generation rules.  Of the three, one failed to reenlist after his first term (spent almost entirely in garrison) with few skills and no rank (but great stats!  such a waste), one died of snake-eyes on a survival roll during an internal security assignment, and the last rolled Commando School, a bunch of combat assignments, got covered in medals and skills, and made E9, but because he never rolled Officer Candidate School he was still Rank 0 as far as mustering out benefit rolls were concerned.  I think the mercenary chargen rules are more likely to generate characters who are high-skill but poor than the core rules, where promotions are both the source of half of your skill rolls and half of your benefit rolls in an "optimum" career (except scouts, which probably end up closer to mercs in terms of "high skill but poor").

Getting the survival and promotion bonuses is nice, but getting the bonuses for Special Assignments is massive if you want to rack up skills or actually get officer rank (ordinarily you only have a 1-in-36 chance of getting each of OCS and commando school per year, which means that in a 4-5 term career you will probably see only one or the other, but with the special assignments bonus from high int/edu that probably goes up to 1-in-18 for commando and 1-in-18 for OCS, which means you will probably roll both in expectation).

Chargen is somewhat more tedious than base, especially if you don't have special assignment bonuses.  I didn't roll any marines, but for army, you will roll garrison assignments about half the time (for infantry, anyway), with automatic survival but no chance for skills.  Armor and artillery arms are more likely to roll a Training assignment with automatic survival and a decent chance of skills, but because there's no vehicle combat system some of those skills seem like they'd be sort of hard to use / hand-wavy.  The support arm, which has access to some nice skills like Medic and Computer, is even more likely to roll garrison assignments.  This is part of why commando training is so important - it allows you to transfer to the commando arm, which has a good skill list and only a 1-in-6 chance of being stuck in garrison, so you get more assignments where you can get skills (but this also means that you have to make four survival rolls per four-year term, so it's high-risk high-reward).

Some inconsistencies - rolling for assignment each year on page 4 says that you may add +1 to the roll if you have 8 Int, but under the General Assignments table on page 6 it says 8 Edu instead.

A Mercenator script, like the old ACKS Henchinator, could be pretty fun for spewing out dudes for PC mercenary companies to hire.

I think it's neat that they have rules about what goes on an NPC's "resume" that players would get to see.  But generating piles of NPCs is sooo slow and then sometimes they die right as they were getting good.  I also like that there are salaries and shares for characters of various ranks, which supports both PCs hiring on with NPC units (there are rules for this too - again, senior enlisted gets kind of shafted) and PC units hiring NPC help.

There are a couple of sample tickets, but a system for generating random tickets (as MGT's Merc has) is absent.  I always felt like Mongoose Merc's ticket generation was just a bit too much and the results weren't quite coherent enough.  But having some lighter weight stuff for generating tickets might be nice, striking a middle ground.

Mongoose Merc is much more...  accountanty about maintenance costs for equipment.

Instruction is a very funny skill - Instruction 1 seems to be useful only for training raw recruits, and higher levels of Instruction are still only useful if you have another high skill (which you might not), but the rules are very cautious about it.  I'm not even sure it would be wildly unreasonably to permit a character with Instruction n to teach Instruction n-1 to other player characters; most parties will be lucky to have a character with Instruction 2 at all (although I suppose that if one is automating the production of new mercenaries, that might change).

I'm a little confused about "group hits by automatic fire" - is this supposed to apply to HE rounds fired from light rifles like the ACR, or is it intended for LAG (anti-materiel), grenades, and artillery?  Because combining multiple attacks from automatic fire with group hits from automatic fire with group hits from HE bullets sounds like a lot of stuff to resolve for a single attack by a regular rifleman.

Fiddled a bit with the abstract battle system.  No choices, very amenable to automation.  Doesn't link up as nicely to the rest of the book as I'd like - a force's efficiency seems pretty important and like it should be determinable statistically (for a high-detail company), with the option to roll it randomly for low-detail enemy forces?  The only other mentions of efficiency are about having too many direct reports, and in the efficiency of field artillery crews, but there's nothing numeric.

More odd inconsistencies with the weapons, where probability of jamming a machine gun doesn't depend on heavy weapons skill, but probability of jamming a gauss machine gun does.

Since armor is no longer DR and there aren't rules for firing on vehicles (unless they were in core and I've forgotten), a lot of these heavier weapon damage listings seem kind of superfluous (instead of listing them as "lol u ded").  I do like that meson artillery is just "all targets in area destroyed".

RAM grenade launchers only have a 3-round magazine and no autofire mode.  Sorry again Alex.

Unclear what happens to hand grenades that you miss the to-hit roll with.

I think the biggest thing this book needs is vehicle combat, but that's probably because my expectations for space mercenaries were set by Hammer's SlammersOmer to the rescue.