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.