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.


  1. One issue is the edition of Traveller being played. Mongoose, in particular, has an assumption that there will be a "party starship", and it has rules to support that like "ship shares" and such faff. Original Traveller, on the other hand was different. One of my projects is to use a character generator to roll up random characters as a way to see what Traveller looks like, statistically. Currently, the file contains the results of 500 characters, 340 of which survived to be playable. Of those 340, 87 attempts were Scouts, of which 18 (!) survived, and a total of 8 of those survivors acquired a Scout Ship as a benefit. That is, 8 out of 340 playable characters have a Scout Ship, or about 2.35% of characters. But there's another profession that might have a ship, the Merchant. There are a lot of rules about paying for a Merchant Ship, so clearly that must be more common, right? Well, no. Only characters which achieve the rank of Captain in the Merchants can potentially get a Merchant Ship, and it is rather difficult to achieve that rank, it turns out. of the 500 characters attempted (again, of which 340 survive to be played), 91 attempted Merchant, of which 64 survived (much better than Scouts). Of those 64, only 1 made the Captain rank (there was one more that made that rank, but then promptly died). That character did, in fact, acquire a Merchant Ship, but you can see that this is not a common result.

    So, in total, of 340 surviving characters so far, only 9 have starships as a result of character generation. That is roughly 2.65%, or one character in 37 7/9ths. Clearly, players were not intended to rely on party starships at the start of play in the original game, since no party could be expected to have 38 characters on average.

    Instead, I contend, Traveller play was originally very closely modeled on the pulp series "Dumarest of Terra", in which the party was comprised of "travellers" (note spelling, which is used in the Dumarest novels and is unusual for an American publisher) who would arrive on a planet with (usually) minimal funds, scramble for work—usually of the adventurous sort—and scrape together enough funds (Cr8000-10,000 unless you want to risk your character on Low Passage; that risk was originally in line almost exactly with Dumarest, by the way, with roughly a 1 in 6 chance of not surviving the trip in the 1977 edition, compared to Dumarest's statement that about 15% died; in the 1981 revision and later, this risk was greatly reduced) to pay for travel to the next system, perhaps saving enough to put up a down payment on a starship (another aspect of the ship funding rules that is often overlooked since it is ignored for ships gained through character generation) and thus having the game transform into that sort of play.

    Note the different textures of campaign that become possible this way. There is the standard "travellers" campaign, the more freewheeling "we got a Scout Ship and we're gonna use it" campaign, the "merchant prince" campaign that is the assumption of editions like Mongoose, and others like the "mercenary company" campaign, the "active Navy" campaign that was discussed in an issue of JTAS, and so on. Most of those get lost in editions where "party ships" are assumed or encouraged.

    I apologize for the length, but I've been analyzing Traveller for insights into play and how the various editions differ in that respect for a few years now.

    1. I am a bit puzzled by some of your stats; "Of those 340, 87 attempts were Scouts, of which 18 (!) survived" seems to contradict "500 characters, 340 of which survived to be playable"? Should it read "Of those 500, 87 attempts were Scouts"?

      But overall I think you have a good point. I think I've remarked before on the "fiction gap" between younger players of MgT like myself and the fiction that inspired Classic Traveller and its universe. I believe I've heard of Dumarest but definitely haven't read it. Such a structure does sound friendlier to open-table play, though that "saving up for a down payment" is a bit of a rub - you still run into the same trouble when/if someone does get a down payment together.

      (I would also hesitate to call MgT's default assumptions "merchant prince" as opposed to "space truckers", but certainly a merchant prince by comparison to Dumarest)

    2. Yes, 87 attempted Scouts out of 500 total attempts, of which only 18 survived. A minor error, sorry. Glad you were able to parse it through my mistake.

      Since the down payment on a Type A Free Trader would be, using numbers from The Traveller Book since it's next to me, 20% of MCr37.08, or MCr7.416, it's not really likely to be an issue unless the Referee decides to provide a significant payoff or create steeper discounts for used starships (in the original rules, the discount for a used starship was only 10%-40%, meaning that even at the steepest discount the player still needs MCr4.4496 for a down payment). Not many characters are all that likely to save up millions of credits, after all, though certainly more likely in the Traveller universe, where taxes and other obstacles to accumulating wealth are extremely minimal and subsumed into the normal cost of living. For whatever reason*, the Imperium doesn't seem all that interested in windfall or luxury taxes and the like.

      The Dumarest books largely operate on a formula: Dumarest arrives on a planet having spent all he could scrape together on passage, he sizes up the situation and figures out a way to leverage it for profit, then continues his quest to find the lost Terra, where he was born. There are complications and other large arcs such as his great love Derai, the scheming, emotionless Cyclan, and the like, but that's the bare bones of it. If you look at the original Traveller rules, that is pretty much how the author seems to have assumed a typical adventure would go, except that there's no built-in push to move around (both Terra and Derai require Dumarest to continue searching).

      *It's because calculating taxes is boring and we have a game to run. As an aside, I am a bit surprised, in retrospect, that there is no attempt to explore import taxes and other costs of doing business in international/interstellar shipping, but to do so would require adjusting a lot of other things, so it's probably not worth the time. They've made it hard enough to turn a profit as it stands (if you do the math, running a Type A2 Far Trader is a generally losing proposition from the outset, for example, requiring quite a lot of luck just to make the monthly mortgage, and I think the reason that they removed the Type M Subsidized Liner from later editions is that there is no way to make a profit with one without subsidies, though of course the name already alludes to that issue; a concerned Referee could probably fix these by increasing the profit from freight to Cr1500/ton or whatever, but that might cause other issues to crop up).

  2. Playing CT 1977 Books 1-3 I've had an open game table. The ship was mostly a means of getting from one planet to the next, and this typically happened at the end of the game session. So who "owned" the ship was irrelevant - an absent player was assumed to just be hanging out on the ship still doing their normal jobs while the present players wandered around on the planet having adventures.

    And of course, nowhere is it written that they must have a ship. Notice how many characters muster out of service with a High or Low Passage? There's no reason you couldn't have a few of them using that to get passage to somewhere interesting.

    One campaign, in fact, started with the players losing a ship - half were guards and half military prisoners who were on a non-atmosphere frigate which misjumped, they had to get to an escape shuttle, and then down on the surface make their way to somewhere safe - but of course, they were on their way to a prison planet, so...