Thursday, April 29, 2021

Traveller: Why Are Radioactives Expensive?

Reflecting on Traveller and gross planetary product, I got to thinking about radioactives.  They're worth a million credits a ton, and it's a little puzzling.  What are radioactives used for in Traveller?  Nuclear weapons are purely the Imperium's prerogative, so that's pretty much out (but radioactives aren't illegal on their own, so it's also not like a black market price inflation sort of thing).  They're not being used for starship armor, probably (almost certainly not for crystal-iron or titanium steel.  Maybe for "bonded superdense"?  But that sounds more like neutronium than depleted uranium).  Is DU being used in infantry weapons and armor?  But you don't really need radioactives for DU, it's depleted.  It's probably not being used for medical imaging with all the higher-TL stuff available.  And it's not being used for power because fusion technology exists.

Fusion, incidentally, sounds like a decent way to synthesize radioactives, since that's how stars do it.  Horribly energy intensive, yes - but you have fusion power.  So fuse hydrogen for energy, and then use that energy to fuse lead or whatever to get your radioactives.

I've got half a mind to remove fusion power and make starships fission powered, as a means of explaining why anybody in Traveller gives a hoot about radioactives.  Doesn't matter how far in the future you go, fusion is still 10 years away.

But I don't think I'd want to use Mongoose's rules for fission power, which are pretty punitive.  I'm fine with the gameplay of the fusion reactor, just not the in-world implications.  Keep the same reactor volume and cost, keep the same fuel volume, but you only have to replace it once every, oh, ten years or so, and have the total cost of the replacement fuel rods add up to what you would've spent on refined hydrogen fuel for a typical fusion reactor over that time.  And then lift HOSTILE's hyperdrive and maneuver drive rules, you're heating hydrogen on the reactor and using that for thrust.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Traveller: How Big is the Militia of that Mining Colony?

(This is a "thinking out loud / showing my work" post)

Thinking about Boot Hill, Traveller, and (naturally) Starcraft led me to the question - how much military hardware and how many trained men does a backwater mining colony have?

Fortunately, Striker has rules for the GDP of planets based on their population, tech level, and economy tags, and suggestions about what fraction of that GDP is allocated to military spending (and ground vs spacy-navy spending) based on situation.

Let's take, say, the world of Serpentine from HOSTILE (subsector New Concession Zone, UWP D590355-C, Desert).  Population digit 3 means it has a few thousand people; applying Benford's Law and a d% roll, about 3000 people.  Per Striker, a TL12 Desert world has a per-capita GDP of 16kCr, so with 3k people total planetary GDP is 48 MCr.  Assuming 3% of GDP is spent on the military (Striker's baseline), that's 1.44 MCr/year.  60% (864 kCr) goes to the navy and 40% to the army (576kCr) (again, Striker's baseline for a world with an atmosphere).  

One place I'm diverging from Striker's assumptions is that 30% of defense spending goes to the Imperium.

That Navy budget is enough to afford a new police cutter (at MgT1e's prices) every, mmm...  65 years.  Once they have one, maintenance and fuel is about 120kCr/year.  A pilot is 72kCr/year salary, and a gunner is 24kCr/year, so TCO of a crewed cutter is 216 kCr/year.  Assuming the colony has been around a long time, their "navy" might field four such police cutters, and maybe 1-2 are on duty at any given time.  The limiting factor here might be human though - pilots have to sleep, machines don't.  If we went down to three cutters we could pick up an extra two pilots and three gunners (and maybe some admin staff) and that might improve availability somewhat but ultimately "between 1 and 3 police cutters on duty at any given time" is still going to be the right answer.

A solar system is a lot of space to cover with three cutters, at least one of which is probably off duty at any given time.  Pirates take note.

Meanwhile, on the surface, 576 kCr/year in army budget.  Government type 5 is the infamous Feudal Technocracy, which sounds like the sort of government that would field a mix of long-service feudal retainers and militia.  A long-service professional soldier costs 30kCr/year in wages, facilities, support personnel, etc, while a militiaman costs 10kCr/year.  So if we didn't have to buy or maintain any gear and were going just for number of bodies, the upper limit on the size of Serpentine's army would be (drumroll) 57 militia, about two platoons.  Which, to be fair, is about 2% of the population.  In times of crisis, with the military budget jacked up to 15% of GDP, they could support almost 300 militia, about two companies (10% of the population).

What gear do our infantry need?  Atmosphere type is 9, "Dense, Tainted", which means they'll all need filter masks.  Serpentine's temperature isn't listed in HOSTILE, but rolling it gave me Temperate, which is a bit odd for a desert world but whatever I'll allow it.  In any case, it seems like they don't need a great deal of protective equipment just to go outside.  Let's go with something like HOSTILE's ballistic vest (450Cr, 45Cr/year maintenance, AR5, 2kg) for armor.  Probably don't need more than one short-range radio per fireteam (250Cr each in HOSTILE), plus one medium or long-range radio for per platoon (1kCr in HOSTILE).  Assault rifles are on the order of 1-3 kCr each, depending on details.  Machine guns are in the same range.  So with equipment maintenance per year at 10% of its base price, we're looking at about an extra, say, 400 Cr/year in gear maintenance, which is peanuts next to personnel upkeep.

Without going through Striker's design sequences, we could consider picking up a couple of APCs at HOSTILE's prices; 100kCr to buy, 10kCr/year upkeep.  Crew of two, 13 passengers, means that four APCs would definitely cover us for the annual price of four militia.  Sounds like a reasonable deal to me, and helpful for moving them around in an unfriendly (though not outright deadly) environment.

So at the end of the day, neglecting the potential "feudal retainer professionals", we're looking at four APCs, 53 militia.  Eight of our militiamen are vehicle crew (four drivers, four gunners), leaving 49 infantry.  Maybe drop one more of the infantrymen and pick up a couple trucks or something in case one of the APCs is down for maintenance, and that also leaves us some buffer to buy a bit of new gear every year.  It is a little weird to give armored vehicles to militia, but it's a mining colony, they're operating and maintaining dump trucks and excavators daily anyway.

Or we could go up to professionals, and get one APC, 15 guys (two of whom are crew), and have a lot more slack to work with for replacing and upgrading gear (about 100 kCr/year - enough to replace the APC annually if necessary).

But the important thing here - this is a small enough army that PCs could conceivably go up against it, or make a difference against the sort of threats that it could deal with.  15-30 guys with assault rifles and an armored vehicle or two is a scary encounter in Traveller, but not impossible to deal with given command and control, morale, dispersion, defeat in detail, low skill levels on militia, and fighting dirty.  If you get the entire army of 50 militiamen and four APCs shooting at you at once, yeah, you're probably hosed.

But because Traveller's population codes go up exponentially, at Pop 4 we'd expect about 10x the population, 10x the GDP, and consequently 10x the army.  So that would be more like a couple of companies, and a much harder thing for PCs to deal with.  So I guess I got lucky picking the break point as my first testcase.  Meanwhile at population 2, which is 1/10th the GDP of Pop 3, you're looking at an "army" the size of the party.

In conclusion: Population 3 or less, maybe you can personally fight their army without having a military unit to back you up.  Population 4 or more, probably not.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Traveller: HOSTILE Review

HOSTILE is a setting book for Cepheus (an OGL clone of Mongoose Traveller 1e) very explicitly inspired by grungy, industrial 80s science fiction movies including Alien, Aliens, Outworld, Silent Running, The Thing, and Blade Runner.  The spaceships are dimly lit with metal grille floors, the aliens are not sentient but definitely carnivorous, space is for working-class heroes crewing 10k dton ships rather than tourists in 200 dton ships, FTL travel makes you go mad if you're not frozen, videophones live on your desk rather than in your pocket, and the corporation is usually hiding something.

This is a pretty darn good setting, and I could absolutely see using it more-or-less as written.  I think it will probably make a lot more sense than Traveller's default setting to many people my age, since it's grounded in media that they've at least heard of.

The good:

  •  Advice on design and employment of horrible alien monsters (HOSTILE was sold to me as "HOSTILE answers the question "How to run Aliens when the players know Aliens?" And supports that answer.")
  • I like what they've done with technology; no antigrav, no personal energy weapons, limited electronics.  A setting of big hydraulics, treads, slugthrowers, and Newton's Third Law.
  • The descriptions of the relatively well-settled and hospitable core worlds are quite good and make it clear that "hospitable" is very relative.  "Temperate climate, breathable atmosphere, a friendly biosphere: choose two."
  • Clever changes to the way jump and maneuver drives work in starship design; maneuver drives use reaction mass, but FTL travel doesn't, so you still end up with a substantial fraction of the ship's volume used for fuel (preserving loose backwards compatibility with other Traveller designs) but FTL plays more "normally" for science fiction.
  • I like that the new careers are simple, more like Classic Traveller careers than Mongoose's "three paths and an event table for each career" approach.
  • Pretty good production value; chapter heading pages look good, the book as a whole is structured as a corporate new employee manual, mix of black and white art and pictures of modern-day industrial equipment filtered for atmosphere color and with low-hanging celestial bodies in the background.
  • More detailed rules for decompression and opening airlocks from the outside.  There's even a diagram of "here's what the exterior panel for an airlock looks like, here is what each button does".
  • Putting everything under corporate control and making ships enormous solves Traveller's historical problem of "where is the economic niche for a tiny Far Trader when there are supposedly these bulk cargo lines?" by saying "Well there isn't, but that's OK."

The bad:

  • Some editing/proofreading issues.  Many run-on sentences, some of which don't make sense.  Some spelling / word-replacement issues (eg, "if" when clearly "of" was meant), but Zozer is definitely better at using spell-check than Mongoose.
  • Kind of a steep price-point for a pdf ($20).
  • Long (right around 300 pages - about 1.5 times the length of the MgT1e core rulebook) and colorful means that it is not very friendly to printing your own copy from the pdf.
  • Some oddities in the careers (eg medical career gets Medical skill 1, 2, and 3 at ranks 1, 2, and 3, while no other career get anything like that level of guaranteed skill for promotion).  This isn't really bad (lord knows we had problems getting a competent medic in MgT), but it is a little odd.
    • The changes to basic training mean that you get many fewer skills at level 0, which seems very questionable to me.  I could definitely see players used to having a broad range of skills at 0 objecting to this, and I don't think I would disagree with them.  On the other hand, this again works out pretty close to Classic Traveller's level of skills, where you got two skill rolls during your first term, one each term thereafter, and no basic training (whereas in HOSTILE you don't get two rolls in your first term, but most careers give a skill at rank 1).  But I'm not sure the utility of skills in CT and in HOSTILE/Cepheus/MgT is directly comparable; many skills in CT gave you a bonus of greater than +1 per point of skill level, and others seemed like you didn't need to roll them at all.  And many important skills, like Vacc Suit and weapon skills, were easy to get at level 0 in Classic Traveller ("Skills appropriate for level-0 are: air/raft, ATV, forward observer, steward, vacc suit, and
      weapons.", CT Book 1, page 23).
  • Equipment weights in tenths of a kilogram, breaking with Mongoose 1e's standard where equipment weights were multiples of 0.5 kg (at least in the core rules).
  • While I'm picking nits about units: in-system travel rates and distances in millions of kilometers, rather than gigameters.  Why would you ever pass up the opportunity to use the word gigameter?
  • I could have used a little less setting history.  I'm already on board with the premise, I don't necessarily need all the details of how we got here.  I skipped over some parts of this.
    • Felt very concrete, not a whole lot of gaps intended for DMs to fill in in order to produce their own variations on the setting's history (there are plenty of gaps in terms of described planets and suspicious facts about various corporations for DMs to author stuff into, though - there are six subsectors' worth of maps, but only the Core Worlds are described in great detail, with a few rim and frontier worlds getting 1-3 sentence descriptions and most undescribed except for UPP and trade codes)
  • The organization of the equipment chapter is pretty odd, with armor coming first and weapons coming last, with all the survival gear and chemicals and robots and android construction rules and vehicles in the middle.  I assume it's alphabetized by sub-heading, which is fine for reference, but it seems like it would be pretty annoying for, say, equipping a new character, where you probably want to start with armor and weapons (the heavy, expensive things that keep you alive), then misc gear, then maybe a vehicle.  In Zozer's defense, MgT 1e's equipment is organized armor, misc gear, weapons, vehicles and robots (but in MgT, it's only ten pages between armor and weapons - HOSTILE has 34 pages between armor and weapons).
  • I'm not really clear why the world generation rules (with the "hard science"
    modifiers baked in) were included/duplicated in this book.

The missing:

  • Thoughts on dealing with replacement characters - if you actually run it as a horrific game, people will occasionally die, and if you follow the advice that horror is made more effective by isolation, where are you to get replacement characters / what are players of dead characters supposed to do?  Playing the monsters only works when there are at least as many monsters as dead players...
  • Thoughts on agency.  Three models of play are proposed - Work (crew an industrial ship (probably cargo, because then you get around) and deal with things that go wrong), Fight (another bug hunt?), and Explore (gee I wonder what happens if I poke this egg).  Work and Fight are both pretty reactive, and if you're a corporate surveyor, Explore is likely to be too.  Just by the nature of the setting where the corporations own everything in space, it doesn't seem particularly amenable to sandbox play.  This is probably fine but it might have borne more discussion as a difference from how Traveller is often run.
  • Example in play of the burn / maneuver drive system.  Or just a rewrite of the Starship Operations chapter of MgT updated for the setting's changes to drives.  If there were five fewer pages of setting history and five more on how the new maneuver drive and hyperdrive work in play, instead of having them crammed into the ship construction chapter, I would be much happier.
    • I am informed that more detail on how HOSTILE's maneuver and hyperdrives work is present in the Crew Expendable supplement.
  • Wages / economy?  The Broker skill description mentions "Trade and Commerce rules" but they aren't in here, presumably it's pointing back to the SRD.  Does crewing a ship pay differently than under stock MgT assumptions?  How do you go about making money, and what can you do with it other than buy weapons and survival gear?
    • How much of your paycheck does the company take for food and gear?
    • How's the health insurance?
    • It would be kind of fun to have "accumulate a certain amount of money" as a win-condition; "I have enough to retire to one of the core worlds on, I'm getting out of this business.  Just need to survive a few more jumps back to the core and then I can buy me a soy farm and never set foot in space ever again".
    • Or a Charlie Company-style 9-month or 1-year contract; "And he was only three weeks away from finishing his contract...  damn shame."
    • I recognize that this is all a gamier perspective than HOSTILE's author probably intends, and that mixing horror and fair play is a hard thing.  But this is the Wandering Gamist.
  • Advancement - if you're a meat popsicle during jump, you don't get those free weeks of training.  It might take a week or two to get to (or from?) a jump point sometimes, but in higher-maneuver ships this will be shorter, so it seems like training time will be rather inconsistent (and may not come in nice one-week chunks, since distance to jump point is rolled).  Any mechanism to make up for that?  Shift training to days instead of weeks?  Or do people just not really run campaigns, and hence advancement isn't something anyone worries about?
    • On the other hand, the discussion of horror does suggest having frequent normal sessions only occasionally punctuated by horror, because this contrast makes it more effective.  So I don't think dismissing this campaign-play aspect is consistent.
  • More deckplans for big industrial ships.  You get one for free in a separate pdf with the main book, but you're probably going to need more for environments for PCs to explore after Something Has Gone Horribly Wrong and they're called in to investigate.  Looking at Zozer's supplements for HOSTILE, it seems like you get about one deckplan per supplement (eg Colonial Freighter for $8.99, Roughnecks has deckplans for a drilling rig, Alien Breeds has floorplans for a colony).  So I sort of wish there were just a "here are all the deckplans from all the supplements" book.

In any case, despite my complaints, this setting does a good job of evoking the feeling that it sets out to evoke, and as stated at the beginning, I could absolutely see running it with few changes to its canon, or mining its ambiance and technology for a less corporate but still grungy setting.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Orthodoxy, Giants, and Elfland

So I was reading Chesterton (uh oh) and a few things popped out at me as vaguely D&D-relevant:

Humility was largely meant as a restraint upon the arrogance and infinity of the appetite of man. He was always outstripping his mercies with his own newly invented needs. His very power of enjoyment destroyed half his joys. By asking for pleasure, he lost the chief pleasure; for the chief pleasure is surprise. Hence it became evident that if a man would make his world large, he must be always making himself small. Even the haughty visions, the tall cities, and the toppling pinnacles are the creations of humility. Giants that tread down forests like grass are the creations of humility. Towers that vanish upwards above the loneliest star are the creations of humility. For towers are not tall unless we look up at them; and giants are not giants unless they are larger than we. All this gigantesque imagination, which is, perhaps, the mightiest of the pleasures of man, is at bottom entirely humble. It is impossible without humility to enjoy anything...

This seemed surprisingly relevant to OSR philosophy - the value of playing ultimately rather small and human characters in a big world, the enjoyment of surprises from the random tables and exploratory play, the fundamental boringness of fighting monsters against which you are evenly matched ("not giants unless they are larger than we"), the boringness of having a nice planned story arc and very little going wrong and ultimately getting what you want that sometimes happens in more modern games.

Even at max-level in B/X or OD&D, you're only a baron, not a king or emperor.  The feeling of being a small fish is still sort of there.  And during the wilderness levels, when you're dealing with 30-300 orcs - "that few stood against many".  Imbalanced combat-as-war is seldom heroic, but balanced encounters never are, because a requisite for heroism is fighting an enemy greater than you, which requires smallness.

But I deal here with what ethic and philosophy come from being fed on fairy tales. If I were describing them in detail I could note many noble and healthy principles that arise from them. There is the chivalrous lesson of "Jack the Giant Killer"; that giants should be killed because they are gigantic. It is a manly mutiny against pride as such.

This struck me as a very curious answer to the problem of justification of fighting sentient / humanoid monsters.

For the pleasure of pedantry I will call it the Doctrine of Conditional Joy. Touchstone talked of much virtue in an "if"; according to elfin ethics all virtue is in an "if." The note of the fairy utterance always is, "You may live in a palace of gold and sapphire, if you do not say the word `cow'"; or "You may live happily with the King's daughter, if you do not show her an onion." The vision always hangs upon a veto. All the dizzy and colossal things conceded depend upon one small thing withheld. All the wild and whirling things that are let loose depend upon one thing that is forbidden. Mr. W.B.Yeats, in his exquisite and piercing elfin poetry, describes the elves as lawless; they plunge in innocent anarchy on the unbridled horses of the air—

"Ride on the crest of the dishevelled tide, And dance upon the mountains like a flame."

It is a dreadful thing to say that Mr. W.B.Yeats does not understand fairyland. But I do say it. He is an ironical Irishman, full of intellectual reactions. He is not stupid enough to understand fairyland. Fairies prefer people of the yokel type like myself; people who gape and grin and do as they are told. Mr. Yeats reads into elfland all the righteous insurrection of his own race. But the lawlessness of Ireland is a Christian lawlessness, founded on reason and justice. The Fenian is rebelling against something he understands only too well; but the true citizen of fairyland is obeying something that he does not understand at all. In the fairy tale an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition. A box is opened, and all evils fly out. A word is forgotten, and cities perish. A lamp is lit, and love flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited. An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone.

This sort of magic-with-a-condition seems like it could be fun in games and certainly fitting to the literature but I don't think I've ever seen it used.  It could get especially exciting if you start stacking up multiple taboos.

This is the tone of fairy tales, and it is certainly not lawlessness or even liberty, though men under a mean modern tyranny may think it liberty by comparison...  Fairy godmothers seem at least as strict as other godmothers. Cinderella received a coach out of Wonderland and a coachman out of nowhere, but she received a command—which might have come out of Brixton—that she should be back by twelve. Also, she had a glass slipper; and it cannot be a coincidence that glass is so common a substance in folk-lore. This princess lives in a glass castle, that princess on a glass hill; this one sees all things in a mirror; they may all live in glass houses if they will not throw stones. For this thin glitter of glass everywhere is the expression of the fact that the happiness is bright but brittle, like the substance most easily smashed by a housemaid or a cat. And this fairy-tale sentiment also sank into me and became my sentiment towards the whole world. I felt and feel that life itself is as bright as the diamond, but as brittle as the window-pane; and when the heavens were compared to the terrible crystal I can remember a shudder. I was afraid that God would drop the cosmos with a crash.

This is what I have learned in some years in the field of computer security.  The internet is brittle.  The power grid is brittle (one well-placed nuke away from ceasing to operate, never mind hacking).  All the wonders of our current way of life are brittle.  But sadly we do not have the fairy tale's clear rules of The Things That Must Not Be Done.

I may express this other feeling of cosmic cosiness by allusion to another book always read in boyhood, "Robinson Crusoe," which I read about this time, and which owes its eternal vivacity to the fact that it celebrates the poetry of limits, nay, even the wild romance of prudence. Crusoe is a man on a small rock with a few comforts just snatched from the sea: the best thing in the book is simply the list of things saved from the wreck. The greatest of poems is an inventory. Every kitchen tool becomes ideal because Crusoe might have dropped it in the sea. It is a good exercise, in empty or ugly hours of the day, to look at anything, the coal-scuttle or the book-case, and think how happy one could be to have brought it out of the sinking ship on to the solitary island. But it is a better exercise still to remember how all things have had this hair-breadth escape: everything has been saved from a wreck. Every man has had one horrible adventure: as a hidden untimely birth he had not been, as infants that never see the light. Men spoke much in my boyhood of restricted or ruined men of genius: and it was common to say that many a man was a Great Might-Have-Been. To me it is a more solid and startling fact that any man in the street is a Great Might-Not-Have-Been.

Ode to the inventory.  Choosing prudently what to bring with you when you can't carry much and it is all that you will have in a dangerous place.  It's also been a long time since I shipwrecked some PCs, but on reflection a strict inventory would've been good there too.

Monday, April 19, 2021


Spring has definitely arrived here.  The cherry trees are blooming and the swallows have returned from wherever they spent the winter.  It has me thinking about haikus and seasons.

I have wanted to make seasons matter in my games back at least to the first ACKS campaign.  Rivers freeze or flood, pine barrens burn, passes close, leaves fall and encounter distance gets longer, monsoon rains fall and encounter distance gets shorter.  Rocs migrate, bears (and dragons?) hibernate.  Seasonal festivals and harvests, summer warfare and winter hospitality, ports closing in the winter.  There's lots of fodder for variations in gameplay.  Better still, it's cyclical variation, rather than a torrent of novelties, none of which ever recur.  What you learned last winter, you may get to reuse (if you live long enough).

I also think nothing says "This is not an adventure path, there is no cosmic threat that you are on a deadline to save the world from" like having a campaign sprawl out over years of game-time.  I think this was a big part of my initial attraction to seasons in play.  I want my players to be able to say, "Nah, adventuring in the snow sucks, let's just take the winter off and fool around town for a couple months."

Unfortunately, this runs into trouble if you have nonzero "background" cash flow.  If you're in a situation where your net cash flow is negative, like having too many mercenaries or a DM who actually enforces the cost of living table, your ability to take time off is very limited.  If you are in a net positive passive cash flow situation, like having a domain, then your DM will go looking for mechanisms to incentivize you to ever go adventuring again.

I like the idea of a campaign long and mellow enough that the aging rules actually start to matter, and you can use the Oriental Adventures randomly yearly theme/events system and not be stuck on that one theme for the entire campaign.  Let the dungeon and the wilderness by tense and hurried; let civilization be unhurried, month-to-season-scaled, stable enough for the farmers (and consequently the players too) to think about next year.

When I proposed to turn expenses-over-time and income-over-time into one-time lump sums [mercenaries][henchmen][domains], I was aiming at letting PCs disappear from the table for long periods of time, in the open-table style.  I hadn't considered that it would work for PCs disappearing from adventuring for a long period of time just to take time off in-world.  But I think it would work.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Traveller, Open Tables, and Boot Hill

There's been some discussion of Traveller on ACKS discord lately and it has me thinking.

All of the Traveller campaigns I've run or played in have been of the "crew of a single ship, small-cast" model.  And Mongoose Traveller, at least, explicitly encourages this with the party skill package.  But what would an open table Traveller campaign look like?  How would you make that work?

If I thought adapting ACKS to open-table play would be tough, Traveller seems a whole 'nother animal.

The biggest difficulty, obviously, is ships.  If there is no party-as-a-whole to own a ship, do you instead have individual players hold the leases on ships?  But then what do you do in a session where no player who has a ship is present?  Is this what the rules for paying for passage are for?  And likewise, what do you do if multiple players with ships are present?  Do you just both go to the same place, convoy-style?  Do you let one ship sit idle?  But then you're paying loan for something you're not using, which brings up another point - if you're a loan-holding player and you can't make a session but time passes in-universe, then what?

Maybe it's best to assume that ships sitting idle are doing boring local deliveries that just break even.

I suppose another answer to the trouble of ships would be "the party (as in the whole playerbase) is a corporation", with ships, debts, and treasury held in common.  But then what if some particular session's subparty really screws up and gets the ship destroyed, or loots the party treasury?

(I suppose another solution to the ship problem is to break with tradition and embrace jump-capable small craft, allowing you to move a party but not a whole lot of gear on a much smaller budget than a typical starship)

Another difficulty - what do you do if you do have a ship-holder at a particular session, but no pilot?  Here again, a seldom-used rule might be relevant: salaries for various crew positions on MgT1e page 137.  The rules in Pirates of Drinax for hiring NPCs would help too.  But it could get weird if the NPC part of your crew is getting paid salaries while the PC part of your crew isn't, and weirder still if you pay different PCs different rates.

Cost of Living for different PCs with different SOC stats (MgT1e page 87) also poses difficulties.

There also isn't really a good Traveller equivalent of a megadungeon.  I suppose one could build an enormous wreck to explore over the course of a campaign, but megadungeons benefit from being fantastical environments which admit lots of internal variance; in a simulated "real" space, you can't do that, so it risks getting dull. 

On the other hand, open table Traveller could be a lot of fun, in part on the basis of variety between planets.  One of the things I liked about Traveller is that it can vary a lot adventure to adventure; it's easy to do Firefly one session, Alien the next, and Mad Max after that.  And in an open table environment, with a broad set of players with different preferences and different skills, it seems like such variation might be more welcome than in a higher-continuity campaign.  It might even be a good excuse to bring out some of the supplements from time to time - if you don't have a ship this session, sign on for a short tour with some mercs and do Hammer's Slammers with Striker this session, or do a stint of private eye work and bust out Agent.

But the point about salaries brought another things to mind: Boot Hill's campaign structure as described in the books, where each player is doing their own thing and you occasionally convene to resolve combats.  A subsector with one or two high-tech or industrial worlds and a smattering of low-pop worlds starts to look rather like the Boot Hill campaign map, with a central "city" and a smattering of ranches, homesteads, and mines.  An X-boat route is a lot like a telegraph line, while an established jump-1 trade route has a certain resemblance to a railroad (using something like warpgate stations instead of ship-mounted FTL really starts to look like a railroad, in that you have to build expensive infrastructure and only service certain spots).  And like Boot Hill, Traveller admits high-volume automation of NPC generation; the process is more complicated, but the output is still simpler than most characters in D&D-type games (particularly if you prune some of the softer noncombat skills / go back to Classic Traveller).  Lining up the passage of real time with the passage of game-time like in OD&D's campaign rules puts the "one week per jump" rule in a new light (I don't know that you'd really want to do 1:1 time, but it's an interesting idea.  2:1 might be more reasonable, so you can do a week in jump and a week in port per IRL week).

A lot of interesting options open up when you break the notion of "party", move to a big cast of PCs with conflicting interests, and maintain campaign-time.  Multiple PC-run mercenary companies, possibly deployed against each other from time to time?  Some players playing at Merchant Prince scale, some players playing individual crewmen of ships and earning salary?  Cat-and-mouse games between PC leaseholders and PC jump tracers?  PC pirates and smugglers who accumulate bounties vs PC bounty hunters, like Boot Hill's dynamic between lawmen and outlaws?  PC belt miners claim jumping each other?  Your hit the motherlode of radioactives and next thing you know you're hiring PC mercenaries to keep the PC pirates off of you.

There's a whole weird world of ways of playing when you let each player play their own subgame which interacts with other players' subgames, and it seems under-explored in tabletop games.  If you don't want to deal with ship mortgages, or asteroid mining, or whatever, there's no party dragging you into dealing with that particular mechanic.  On the other hand, "many players independently playing their own interacting subgames in spaaace" may have also just described EVE Online.  But there's something to be said for games that have below Dunbar's Number of players and a flexible referee.

And Traveller covers two of Boot Hill's weaknesses: lack of information on economy and yields of various activities (if anything Traveller refs are spoiled for choices, across the various editions) and political difficulties around the Wild West setting.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The Risk Floor

 This is not my original insight; it's something that comes up in the ACKS discord occasionally, but that I don't think I've ever seen talked about in the rest of the OSRosphere

It can seem kind of cruel to have monsters with save-or-die poison on the first level of the dungeon.  But it's actually important for the long haul.

Save-or-die poison threatens characters regardless of their level (particularly in combination with "a natural 20 always hits").  When you put save-or-die monsters in the first level of the dungeon (and then all the rest) you are saying "it doesn't matter how high level you are, adventuring anywhere always carries some risk, no matter how small, of death."

There is, in effect, a floor on the amount of risk that you are allowed to assume while still calling your activity "adventuring".  Without some amount of real risk, would it be an adventure?  No.

I think the existence of this risk floor is important to campaign gameplay as well as semantics.  Making adventuring never quite safe discourages players from just sticking to the weakest areas and grinding out levels in as much safety as they can manage, because "as safe as you can manage" still always has "losing the game" on the table.  Since you must take risks, you probably want to assume slightly more risk for a much higher payout (ie, push into deeper levels of the dungeon).  So it helps keep the campaign from entering a degenerate state and helps motivate progress through the environment.  It's probably also important for keeping play with mixed-level parties from getting boring for the players with higher-level characters.  Finally, in-world, it also helps explain why high-level adventurers might want to hire low-level adventurers for certain jobs /  delegate; the risk to those high-level adventurers is low, but never zero.  Better to let someone else do the dying if you can get them to.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Simple Domains: Vassals and Tributaries

I've been playing Crusader Kings 2 again lately, and the split between feudal vassals who give you troops and city vassals who give you money is interesting.  It has me thinking about my Estates ideas from back when.

Maybe a good option for Simple Domains would be to classify vassal and tributary domains a little differently.

A vassal domain is one whose ruler has entered into a feudal contract with another domain.  The vassal domain's primary obligation is troops - rather than paying taxes in cash, it pays them (all or mostly) by maintaining and supplying troops and putting them at the disposal of its sovereign.  Taking a quick look over Simple Borderlands domains, it looks like if you roll your taxes into garrison you end up with about twice the standing troops you otherwise would, so I don't think this is wildly unreasonable - it's not like we're taking domains with 5kgp/mo in garrison and asking them to assemble 50kgp/mo standing armies for their lords to call up.

Maybe this is a good spot to use per-culture mercenary mixes; when you call your vassals up, they don't bring super-specialist armies, just the troops of their peoples' way of war.

Henchman domains are typically vassals, because they're loyal enough to trust with troops.  When you call up vassal troops, roll loyalty of the vassal; if you roll badly they make excuses and send only a fraction of their obligated troops.

Tributary domains, on the other hand, pay all of their obligations to their sovereign in cash.  You don't need to trust them with a double-size standing army, but if you want to turn their taxes into mercenaries, it will take you time.

Perhaps the arrangement between sub-domains and their sovereign has some influence on morale, depending on the nature of the underlying domain.  A hill tribe that you've subjugated may be happy to provide warriors, but they're cash-poor.  A trading city has plenty of cash but no access to good troops; asking them to maintain an army for you is a greater burden, and will reduce their domain morale.

Vassal domains providing troops instead of taxes seems like it might be a good way to accelerate the domain game, where the ability to accumulate an army is the limiting factor of an up-and-coming fighter.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Return to Wilderness Level

Once upon a time, I thought about having wilderness difficulty scale up and down sort of like dungeon difficulty.  I think that proposal had several problems, but I think maybe I see a better way to do it now.

I've been thinking about how one would/could do low-level wilderness adventures in OSR games.  The monsters in wilderness encounters are just so numerous that any encounter is likely to wipe out a low-level party that gets a poor reaction roll and fails to evade, and none of your "win buttons" work - if you cast sleep on the goblins, you drop a quarter of the warband, and the rest will still get you.

Some OSR systems already sort of have a method to adjust encounter difficulty based on dungeon level.  It's possible it was in AD&D and I just haven't seen the original source.  In OSRIC,

Lesser monsters encountered on a lower dungeon level
should have their numbers increased by the same amount
for each dungeon level lower than their monster level. For
example, the sub-table # column lists 2d10 for goblins (1st-lvl)
encountered on the first level of the dungeon. If encountered
on the third level of the dungeon, they would be three times
as numerous (6d10).

ACKS has a similar rule, with a different constant:

Roll the appropriate number encountered for the creature to determine how many are present. Increase or decrease this roll by one-half for each step of difference between the dungeon level and the Random Monster table used (round down).

OSE, surprisingly, does not seem to have such a rule, which is part of why I think it might be an AD&Dism.

But if we accept that the number of monsters appearing scales up with dungeon level, then we can argue that the wilderness is something like the 7th level of a dungeon, on the basis that a wilderness encounter of goblins is seven times (on average) the size of a dungeon encounter of goblins.  Taking ogres instead, we get something more like a 4th-level dungeon, since ogres appear on the 3rd level of dungeons and an encounter with them in the wilderness is only twice as large as a dungeon encounter.  We could probably go through and figure out the average "effective dungeon level" of wilderness from all of the monsters that appear on the "random monsters by dungeon level" table.

Just looking at the table and a few entries instead of doing that analysis, I think something around dungeon level 5 is probably pretty close.  Possibly with an extra adjustment for ~1HD creatures that causes them to scale up faster.

If we characterize generic wilderness in this way, as a multiplier on encounter size, then we can alter that characteristic for different wildernesses, just as we do for dungeon levels.  This provides another way to create difficulty gradients in pure wilderness like we already have in dungeons - and a much finer-grained one than ACKS' borderlands-vs-wilderness distinction!  If you meet goblins in the Sunny Meadow, effective dungeon level 2, you only encounter two gangs, and sleep can still save the day.  If you encounter goblins in the Ash Wastes, effective dungeon level 7, you get your usual 2d6 gangs and sleep will not save you.

Characterizing biomes with effective dungeon level also provides a way to figure the size of unguarded treasures (or trapped treasures)  in the "wilderness as dungeon" model.

It might also be useful as a starting point for the effective level of the first level of dungeons located in those biomes.  If you're in the Ash Wastes and you find a dungeon entrance, the first level is not going to be as easy as the first level of a dungeon in the Sunny Meadow!

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Out of Characters? Play the Monsters

Had a discussion recently about how to handle players whose characters have died during a dungeon crawl.  One traditional solution, back even to Gygax, is to have new characters appear in the dungeon at the first plausible opportunity, maybe having been captured by monsters or being the remnants of another adventuring party.

I don't really like that solution though.  At the very least it messes with the resource management game, to have new characters at full HP, full spells, and full equipment joining the party in the middle of the dungeon as a matter of course.  As an infrequent thing, I wouldn't mind too much - meet another party, roll well on reaction, join up, fine.  If it were accompanied by some resource exhaustion on the incoming character, that might be fine too.  But the stated policy of many DMs, to have new characters join the party at the next possible excuse, does not seem like a policy that I would want to make known to my past (occasionally exploitative) players, particularly in the presence of the Reserve XP rule allowing them to bring in new characters of higher than 1st level.

Maybe the problem here is really Reserve XP.

But in any case, that's not the thought that I came to share.  As I mentioned last post, Beyond the Black Gate has been on my mind.  Another post of his which has been influential on my thought was about Arneson's impartiality, and this bit sprang to mind:

He would go so far, sometimes, as letting the players roll the dice for both sides of a conflict. Once, when the party's boat was a attacked by a horde of lizardmen, he told us how many there were, their armor class, their hit points, what they needed to hit us, and so on. They were stupid, he explained, and fanatic, and would fight to the death, so we should be able to take care of that ourselves, and he was going to go get a coke and he'd be back in a few minutes to check on us. Half of the players grinned at his audacity (me included), while the other half looked around for the hidden cameras or waited for the punch line.

And Boot Hill's bit about having players with no stake in a particular fight play the opposing NPCs is also fresh.  So...

If a player with all dead characters has finished rolling up their next one and is now bored, let them run some of the monsters in combat.  Heck, maybe let them direct some random encounters out around the edge of torchlight.  I could see this being tricky to do well given partial information - presumably you don't want to show the player the ground-truth dungeon map, because his next incarnation may well come back to this section.  But I think having them run, say, an humanoid champion and his goons in a combat is probably pretty reasonable.

When I was first starting to learn to DM, my father did something similar, I think, introducing me to monster statblocks and letting me run a few of them in combat.  Granted, that was in 3rd Edition, where the statblocks were a lot more complex, but I still think this might be a reasonable avenue to help players get familiar with how things work on the other side of the screen.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Wilderness as Dungeon - Monster Rooms, Strongholds as Treasure?

Previously in this train of thought:

  • Never Show Them The Map (2016): Showing your players the ground-truth hex map ruins the joy of exploration.  Dungeoneering gameplay gets this right by making them map for themselves.
  • Applied Wilderness Theory (2017): Trying to build a microsandbox borrowing some elements from dungeon play; thinking about days as like turns, and dividing monsters into beasts, sentients, and scary monsters, with the same ratios that those appear in dungeons.
  • Further Thoughts (2017): Thinking about stocking using the specials, traps, unguarded treasure, and empty ratios used in dungeon stocking, as well as inverse-jayquaying, creating barriers to otherwise mostly open wilderness movement.
  • Revisisted (2019): The realization that the hex is more like a 10' square than like a room.  A repudiation of microsandboxing (for reusable wilderness / campaign play).  Considerations around "rooms" or "biomes" in the wilderness.

BH2 got me thinking about the wilderness game again.  Something I've never really worked out to my satisfaction before with the wilderness-as-dungeon idea is how you handle "monster" rooms, if you're following a dungeon-like stocking procedure.  Putting a special somewhere in a 7-10 hex biome is easy.  But it wouldn't make any sense for a wilderness area to have no monsters - surely there are a few bears in the forest.  So then what differentiates a "monster" room from a regular wilderness area?

Two ideas eventually merged.  One was from Koewn's comment on Simple Domains that they looked a lot like monster lair entries, but really beefed up.  The other was revisiting Beyond the Black Gate's How I Hexcrawl posts while thinking about False Machine's Crypt of the OSR post, about the bloggers of old who no longer post.  BtBG noted:

With wandering monsters, I like to have certain "iconic" monsters for each area (such as werewolves in the Blighted Forest and Ankhegs in the Sunken Hills, etc), rather than a mixed bag, as it gives those areas a more distinct flavor. I would then assign a chance for an encounter based on my perceived density of the local monster population.

I think that's probably a reasonable way to handle a monster-heavy biome: roll once for monster type for each "monster room", and the biome is crawling with them.  I'm considering calling it an infested biome.  It might be goblin-infested or panther-infested or man-infested or wyvern-infested or whatever.  All lairs in that biome are of that type of monster (although contra ACKS, I think at most one lair per hex is a reasonable concession to manageability).  The random encounter frequency is higher than normal, and a strong majority (5/6?  9/10?) of encounters in that area are with creatures of that type.

A man-infested biome might be a borderlands domain, or it might just be full of bandit camps.

It might make sense to have a separate table of monsters which can infest a biome, or which are interesting as signature monsters.

Non-infested biomes / non-monster rooms still have monsters, they're just a grab bag and not present in the same density as in an infested biome.  Roll random encounters and lair chances normally for terrain of that type.

If about 30% of biomes are infested (the same proportion as monster rooms in the dungeon), and each biome borders 4-6 other biomes on average, then most infested biomes will have about one or two infested neighbors.  Border tension!

Something else I've been considering is ruined strongholds as treasure.  Yes, I know, they often get used that way already.  But it seems like something that a wilderness-stocking system should take into account.  It would be interesting to figure the value of a ruined stronghold into the total treasure of an infested biome (and to say that most biomes infested with sentients will have some amount of fortification), and to make taking and holding a stronghold grant XP, much like building one.  But I have no concrete proposals yet.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Wilderness Movement Speed - Wooded Hills as Default?

There's a funny asymmetry in the way we deal with numbers.  Dividing is tricky; you often have leftovers and have to deal with rounding and it's just a slow operation.  Multiplication is relatively easy.

Maybe it makes sense to reframe the "normal" wilderness movement speed based on wooded hills, sort of the default background terrain for D&D unless otherwise specified, and then have multipliers relative to that baseline rather than setting speed based on the best possible terrain, flat plains, and then dividing.

In ACKS, wooded is x2/3 and hills are x2/3, so if you are in wooded hills you multiplty those and get 4/9 which is close enough to 1/2 for government work.  Which, conveniently, is also the speed multiplier for mountains, swamps, and a variety of other terrains.

So then this looks like:

  • 120' speed -> 12 mi/day, 2 hexes
  • 90' speed -> 9 mi/day, 1.5 hexes
  • 60' speed -> 6 mi/day, 1 hex
  • 30' speed -> 3 mi/day, 0.5 hexes

Being able to just divide speed in feet per turn by 10 to get miles per day is pretty nice; it's not that the arithmetic was tricky before, but 10 is a super-easy constant to remember.  Riding a medium horse with 180' speed?  18 mi/day, boom.  And as long as combat speeds remain multiples of 30', wilderness speeds will remain multiples of half-hexes.

Then if you're on a road, or in flat clear terrain, multiply by 2.  If both, multiply by 3.

The 9 mi/day is a little annoying, but "three hexes per two days" isn't too bad.

Forced march is also a bit annoying, since multiplying say 1.5 hexes per day by 1.5 gives you 2.25 which is not a multiple of 0.5, but I suppose one could go with "cover two days' distance in a 16-hour marching day, then have to rest for two days"?

Having a table that handles rounding or dropping fractions could also be a reasonable approach for dealing with odd situations like "we have 90' speed and we're forced-marching (x1.5) through scrub hills (x1.5, if you wanted to re-introduce the increased speed for not having the forest penalty), we move 3.5 hexes".  Or just don't worry about it and find workarounds that let you multiply by 2 instead.

Flying also becomes quadruple speed instead of double, since speeds were halved.

I think I like this proposal a lot more than my movement points idea.  Sure, it loses some detail (doesn't distinguish between hill forest and flat forest, for example), but ultimately...  I'm not sure that's worth worrying over.  Differences in terrain speed make computing optimal paths more annoying, but if you don't show your players the map of the wilderness, they can't compute optimal paths anyway until they've been there and back and done some exploring.  So you shouldn't be losing too much gameplay here, and what routing "gameplay" you are losing wasn't really fun, so...  sounds fine?

And returning to the wilderness as dungeon metaphor, I guess instead of using soft-walls of slowing terrain types where you have to stop and think about routing all the time, you can instead use hard-walls like impassable ridgelines and rivers to break up "rooms" and only occasionally include slow and fast terrain to mix things up.  Just like in dungeons, where most dungeon floor is just...  floor, with standard speed, separated by walls.

Having 12mi/day as the standard is also pretty close to Arneson's 10mi/day (thanks for mentioning this, DHBoggs!).