Octagon Campaign – Session 1

The Initial Situation

After seven calm days in jump space aboard the sleek, jet black yacht Dark Moon, it’s crew of five are awaiting the iminent exit to normal space, heralded by a familiar low rumble.

There is Carmen Marshall, 35 year old captain and owner of the Dark Moon and Van Dex, Carmen’s 39 year old “first officer”. The two have been business partners for a while. So far Van Dex didn’t notice anything unusual or even illegal about Carmen’s business practices. After a prior career in the employ of his home world mega corporation Tremous Dex, he’s used to the ins and outs of space trading. Carmen has never told much about her home world Raschev, why she left, and never went back home. Carmen and Van Dex are non-imperials, they’re from independent worlds far on the spinward edge of the sector.

There are also three passengers: the young and wealthy scientist Suri Brown, who specialises on psionicology, and two imperial veterans, medical doctor Edward Phila and army captain Walter Kemp, they both served in the army and have known each other since they met during the infamous Siege of Gitosy.

Over the last few days in jump space some tension has been mounting aboard. A week ago, mere seconds before the jump, the Dark Moon was almost hit by a rocket. The crew realized they were being persued only moments before and couldn’t make much from the sensor readings. After reviewing the recorded visuals of the other ship, all Walter could tell was: “they’re not imperial and they’re not from Gitosy, that’s for sure”. Carmen seemed tense at first, but shook off her nervousness quickly. Then they came up with a plan: “as soon as we exit to normal, we divert from our course to Vanejen, power down and wait if anything pops out of jump behind us, everyone put on vacc suits!”.

They spend some hours “lying doggo”, passive sensors show nothing. Then they power up again, do an active sweep some 500.000 km around, still nothing. Soon enough they get hailed: “Dark Moon, this is the Tortuga Heritage, stand by for boarding”. There is some commotion aboard the Dark Moon, “damn, why didn’t we sense them, not even a jump flash when they emerged”.

But now they’ve got a reading on their screens. The Tortuga Heritage is closing in, obviously. They know they’ve still got hours to prepare. As time passes sensors show, that the other ship is a modified far trader, it’s fast and about the same size as the Dark Moon. It sports the emblem of a blindfolded skull on it’s fins. They hail the Tortuga Heritage and ask for their objective.

Surprisingly it’s captain, one Benjamin “Quicksilver” Turkin, is quite frank about this: “see, there’s this bounty of 50.000 Credits on Carmen Marshall’s head – it’s dead or alive, so you might as well eject her from your air locks for us to pick up, but wouldn’t that be a pity? Besides, nice ship the Dark Moon, almost pathetic to see her in our cross hairs”.

Walter Kemp turns to Carmen angrily “why, surely there’s something about you we should have known, not a bad idea to cycle you through the air lock and be done with it”, but Suri takes a stand “no one is going to take anyone of us”. Van Dex is puzzled. Carmen snarls “I bet there’s more bounty on Quicksilvers head then mine!”

After some discussion Walter Kemp picks up the comm: “Tortuga Heritage, this is Captain Walter Kemp. I’ve seized control of the Dark Moon, we’ll be awaiting your docking maneuvre, and will exchange Mrs. Marshall for an immediate payment of 10.000 Credits” and Quicksilver seems to bite: “Copy, Captain Kemp, stand by”.

The Tortuga Heritage slowly closes in, both turrets aimed at the Dark Moon, Van Dex has manned the Dark Moons turret aiming at the air lock of the other ship and watches the tubular boarding gantry slowly extend across the gap. Carmen is still in the pilots seat and programs her ships computer to keep a close boarding distance to the Tortuga Heritage.

Suri and Edward take up position in the Dark Moons Airlock, ready to cover Walter, who’s preparing to meet the bounty hunters. All are in Vacc Suits and armed with rifles. Walter has secured himself with a long multifilament, EVA-security chord, tied to the air lock and pushes Carmen’s black, custom made vacc suit in front of him. They’ve filled her vacc suit with some scrap metal for mass and filled it up with hydrogen. Carmen whined at the plan, but gave in. They’ve tied the arms of Carmen’s vacc suit behind it’s back and tied the boots together to make it appear like she’s bound up.

“Ok, this is Captain Kemp, I’ve got Mrs. Marshall tied up and will meet you half way between our ships in the gantry. Have 10.000 Cr ready for the exchange.”

He slowly moves out into the gantry. On the other side he notices a woman in combat armor with head lights and a dark visor accompanied by a small combat droid. He knows these droids all to well, and mentally prepares to aim for it’s vulnerable control circuits. Then after a pause:

“Negative Kemp! We’ll meet you on our ship. Make no mistakes!”

Walter moves on carefully, everyone on the Dark Moon get’s nervous.

Suddenly Suri can’t hold it anymore, she jerks on Walters security line, tries to pull him away from danger, Walter shoves the empty space suit away from him, as he get’s pulled back. Van Dex hears the commotion and fires pulse laser at the other ship, Edward fires at the prepared space suit. Both ships get pushed appart from the explosion, the woman in combat armor and her droid spin out into space lifeless. Walter dangles on the security chord in between the ships surrounded by debris and finally get’s pulled back into the safety of their air lock. Carmen face palms.

Walter says “they’re not getting away with this, now we’re going to board, we can have the Tortuga Heritage! I’ve done this many times while in service”. He jumps, drifts some 150 meters and lands right next to the outer hatch of the Tortuga Heritage. The security line reels out to maximum length. As he manages to successfully open the hatch from the outside (a bunch of amazingly successful Vacc Suit and Electronics rolls), he feels something bump into him from behind. Suri has attached herself to the security line and cable cared accross. Edward follows quickly thereafter. Through the view port of the inner hatch they spot four mercenaries in combat suits, aiming sub-machine guns at them. Now everyone has had enough of this:

Quicksilver panicks and orders his gunner to fire rockets at the Dark Moon, despising the dangerously short distance, Van Dex fires recklessly at the Tortuga Heritage, a couple of explosions ensue, Suri gets blinded by laser reflections from the Dark Moons protective coating. Captain Quicksilver dies from a direct hit to his bridge. One mercenary goes down in the cross fire. The Dark Moon suffers hits to her fuel tankage and the cargo hold, damaging Van Dex’s Air/Raft badly. They’ll still be able to land.

Finally the Dark Moon’s Crew takes four surviving mercenaries captive, secures ten brand new SR-5 Survival Rifles and four HES-6 Hostile Environment Suits from the Tortuga Heritage’s cargo hold. They manage to restore control of the Tortuga Heritage just enough to put the badly damaged ship on a trajectory for a safe orbit around Vanejen. Then they make for Vanejen Space Port.

Vanejen is a bit larger then Mars, has standard atmosphere, still breathable without protection in spite of some notable industrial pollution. About 60% of the surface is covered with oceans and there are large ice caps on both poles of the planet. The local tech level is similar to Terra’s early twentieth century, and a feudal technocracy maintains a rather permissive law level.

Down dirtside, the crew discovers that the old navy facilities of the class C space port have been deserted more then a century ago. There are no repair facilities, and only unrefined fuel. Seems like they’re stuck on Vanejen for some time. The mood get’s worse as Van Dex finds that his calulations we’re off by some degrees. The Tortuga Heritage’s orbit is decaying …

About the rules

This has been the first time i’ve played and refereed a game with Traveller5 rules. Writing this session report, I’m surprised how much actually happend in this first four hour session. I had to look up a few things during the session, especially the space combat range bands. And some weapon stats for space combat.

Things I liked:

  • the base mechanic is super simple, roll 2d6 under target number. Basically that’s all a casual player would have to know.

  • optional granularity of the system seems to scale well. The rules allow to include technical details to various degree – as long as it’s fun.

  • Range Bands are great, they facilitate realistic narrative without bogging down the game by having to count squares or measuring distances on the gaming table.

  • ablative armor and the “10 hits put any NPC out of action”-rule, speed up combat resolution nicely.

Things I struggled with:

  • Calculating numbers of dice to roll and modifiers in combat, there are a lot of variables to take into account: distance, cover, rate of fire, is the combatant firing cautiously or snap firing? I guess I’ll get used to it.

Things to look up in the rules

  • Rules for sensor actions. I thought them less important while reading the rules but found them to contribute quite a bit to the narrative and set up of the situation, even in the first session. I hand waved this for now. Fair enough I think.

Movement and Combat Rounds in OD&D

User Tegres over on Discord asked, how I handle movement in combat rounds in OD&D. And what about shooting bows?

Surely, when it comes to OD&D, these are the most commonly discussed rules questions.

What’s in the rules?

The original rules contain various hints at how movement and combat rounds should be adjudicated, and all of them seem to be somewhat contradictory. On page 15 of Vol. I Men & Magic we learn:

Light Foot Movement12″
Heavy Foot Movement9″
“Armed” Foot Movement (shouldn’t it read “armored”?) 6″
Movement categories in OD&D

So e.g. a Heavy Footmen, that would be a fighter in chainmail with sword and shield, has an assigned movement of 9 inch – 9 inch on the tabletop that is. But 9″ per what? In what time? Once per turn? … but wait, yes! Further down the page we’re presented with the example of an Armored (sic!) Footman moving 6″/turn. It’s per turn! … so that seems settled.

On page 8 of Vol. III The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures the reader is informed that:

“In the underworld all distances are in feet, so wherever distances are given in inches, convert them to tens of feet

So 9″ would be 90 feet in the dungeon. Alright, sounds familiar, especially if you know your B/X rules.

“Movement (distances given in Vol. I) is in segments of approximately ten minutes … ”

and

“Two moves constitute a turn.”

Wow, moves/movement, segements, turns … I’m confused. But let’s note: 1 turn is approximately 10 minutes. Now let’s close in on the combat round:

“Melee is fast and furious.”

Hell yeah! let’s get to it!

“There are ten rounds of combat per turn”

Ah, here it is. From this statement it’s commonly derived that one combat round would thus be one minute long. But do the authors explicitly say so? Single combat rounds could be much shorter than a minute, or much longer, only on average ten combat rounds amount to one turn, or ten minutes – at least that’s the freedom I’d like to take in this case. Surely everyone needs to catch his breath after 10 rounds of combat …

Regarding distances in the wilderness we finally find on page 17 of Vol. III:

“inches convert to tens of yards for the wilderness”

And that’s it. Other than that, when it comes to combat rules, OD&D refers to Chainmail, a miniatures rules set published in 1971. There simply is no clear statement what distance a character might cover within one combat round.

How about Common Sense?

How far can a human move within one minute? A quick search gives me these estimates:

Pacekm/hm/smeters/minute (“combat round”)
walk41.160
jog82.2132
run164.4264
commonly achievable speeds of human-sized bipeds

O.k., wait … so while a real world human walking at a leisurely pace will cover 60 meters per minute, the hero of our beloved fantasy realm – even when unencumbered – will only cover little more than half the distance? – given that 12″ should convert to 120 feet or 36 meters by OD&D standards … this is kind of embarassing.

So no way could movement per combat round (1 minute?) be meant as one 10th of the movement per turn (10 minutes). It has to be one “move” per combat round. But even that is slow, as we just figured out.

On the other hand, provided we’re using the common scale of 5′ or 1.5 m per square, if the distance covered in one combat round would actually be 36 meters, that would convert to 24 squares per round. Since my battlemap is 21 x 25 squares large, an unencumbered character could essentially cover all of the battlemap within one round of combat. How does this even make sense?

Let’s face it: one minute combat rounds are ridiculous!

But then again, 10 minutes for a fight of some 10 combat rounds? with all the give and take, readying of weapons, short breaks of combatants circling each other, panting with exhaustion, wounded combatants being taken care of, spells prepared and cast … Isn’t that, what the original rules really intent?

So what do I make of this? (TLDR)

I think the most essential information on movement in OD&D is in the values given in tabletop inches! It’s the first information given in the rules, and I’m convinced it should be read as the principal information.

A heavy footman moves 9 tabletop inches per combat round. period.

So combatants move some 6 to 12 squares on the battlemap. That’s playable and thus – for me – makes sense.

How far said distance actually is narratively, depends on the scale that’s currently in use. In narrow dungeon hallways, characters might be moving a couple of meters per round, in the outdoors a heavy footman might cover almost 100 meters per combat round – still well within the bounds of real world human speed. In an aerial combat, flying mounts might cover hundreds of meters. It depends on the scale that narratively makes sense.

After 10 combat rounds about 10 minutes will have passed. That’s that. Stop worrying!

Now, what about the bows?

OD&D gives us no clue about this. In fact it gives us no information about the structure of combat rounds at all, not even about initiative.

I’ve written about the structure of combat rounds before. Basically, I interpret the rules given like this: in each round a character may move it’s designated move in tabletop inches and have the chance to achieve one relevant success pertaining to the combat. That is: one roll to hit. For archers I rule, that they may roll twice to hit, if they decide to forfeit their movement. Casting magic takes time. Wizards may not move in any round they’re casting a spell.

Finally, while in our recently finished campaign we consistently used group initiative, since being a player in a Classic Traveller campaign, I have grown fond of simultaneous initiative. That is: no rolls for initiative at all, it’s a non-concept. There might be rolls for surprise (those are actually mentioned in OD&D!), then everyone rolls to hit once (or twice) per round, and even a dying character might still deliver a last damaging blow to his opponent. How cool is that?! Fast and furious!!

Getting to know Traveller 5 – Part II

Sir Rengwo bad-Jerzal gets in trouble

In an earlier post I tried a simple hand to hand melee between two characters. This time, I’ll try a melee fight between a competent fighter and a beast — a rather traditional situation when it gets to role playing games.

I’m presently reading The Queen of Zamba by Lyon Sprague de Camp, the first novel in his Krishna series. So, to flesh things out a bit, let’s say the short scenario I am about to play out happens on Planet Krishna.

The setup

Our Hero is Sir Rengwo bad-Jerzal (997ACB). He’s a highly educated, very intelligent noble of above average physical condition. His strength and dexterity are 9 each, and his endurance an average 7. Above all he’s very well trained with his rapier. His skill fighter-6 and his knowledge blades-6 reflect 12 years of experience with fencing weapons.

It’s a warm sunny day with few friendly clouds in Krishna’s beautiful emerald sky. Rengwo pensively strolls along some lightly wooded hills ahead of his squires, as he suddenly gets surprised and ambushed by a Yeki. Rengwo immediately draws his rapier, ready to defend himself since his jack, a lightly protective coat, won’t help him much.

Yekis are described as six legged minks the size of a tiger. They are fierce, dangerous pouncers, significantly larger and heavier then men — or krishnans for that matter.

So let’s try to define a Yeki in terms of Traveller 5 rules. I imagine a Yeki to be around 3 to 4 meters long, including the tail. That would be size 5 (large). It’s got typical strength for it’s size, and is a predator: 3D * size (the uppercase D is traditional Traveller shorthand for 1d6 — one six sided die). I roll a seven, so the final strength will be 45 … that’s a lot I think, but that’s just what the rules say. Let’s see how it works out. The Yeki fights with fangs and claws, doing 3D points of damage. It also has got a furry pelt, giving 2D-2 points of armor. I roll a 9, so the Yeki’s pelt provides armor=7. Because of it’s strength and lack of any defined skills, it’s melee number (MN) is 45. This melee number will become important in just a moment, bear with me.

To quickly recapitulate Rengwo’s stats, with his strength of 9, fighter-6 and blades-6 gives him a melee number (MN) of 9 + 6 + 6 = 21, his jack has armor=5, and his rapier does 2D of cutting damage.

The Fight

Now on to the fight. To attack in a close quarters hand-to-hand fight, one needs to subtract the defenders melee number (DMN) from the attackers melee number (AMN) and roll 2D under the resulting target number.

Round NumberYekiRengwo
1The Yeki attacks. It’s target number is AMN-DWM, so 45-21=24. The yeki needs to roll 2D under 24. Well, actually no roll is needed, since that’s an automatic success. I roll 3D for damage, and get a 12. Since 5 points of damage are absorbed by Rengwo’s armor, he suffers 7 points of damage.Rengwo suffers 7 points of damage and deducts them from his strength. He’s down to 2 points of strength, but still has got his full dexterity and endurance. He’s somewhat shaken but still up. Wisely he decides, that there’s just no point in trying to fence with this formidable foe, so he tries to climb a tree. He needs to roll his half dexterity: a 4 (rounded down from 9/2). He rolls a 5 and fails to climb out of reach at the first try.
2The yeki claws after Rengwo, does an automatic hit again, and causes 6 points of damage. Rengwo’s jack absorbes 5 points.Rengwo suffers another point of damage, and deducts it from his dexterity. He tries again to climb to safety, and rolls a lucky 3 this time. Let’s assume he’s out of reach for now.
3The yeki tries to get at Rengwo. It doesn’t even notice, how it gets hit by a crossbow bolt, for 9 points of damage. I treat the yeki as an NPC. 10 points of damage would take it out of action immediately, but anything less than that just get ignored.Alarmed by Rengwo’s shouting and the growls of the beast, one of his squires rushes to the rescue. He cocks a heavy crossbow and dares a shot at the yeki from 40 m distance. Assuming the squires dexterity at 7, and his skills fighter-4 and crossbow-3, the squires shooting number (SN) is 14. Forty meters of distance is range 2 in rules terms, so I need to roll 2D under SN 14 + 3 (thats size 5 of the yeki minus range 2), so 17. Again thats an automatic hit. I roll 3D for damage and get a 9. Considering the yekis protective pelt, that’s far from enough to take the yeki out of action.
4The yeki begins to climb up the tree, ripping and clawing at the trunk. It tries to get at Rengwo.Rengwo tries to climb higher yet, but now rolls a 5 on his half-dex check, and thus fails his climb. I decide that he tumbles down from the tree. Assuming that he’d impact on the ground with speed 2 (at least 10 kph) he would normally suffer 4D of damage (impact speed squared). But there’s a chance yet: to avoid falling damage altogether, a character is allowed to do a dex check with a number of dice corresponding to the falling height, and that’s 1D, since Rengwo’s falling height is within range 1. To roll 1D under Rengwo’s dexterity of 8 is once more an automatic success, so the fall will just stun Rengwo. All that remains to do, is roll 1D to determin the number of combat rounds Rengwo will be stunned. I roll a 6, so he will be out of commission for about six minutes.

The Aftermath

I assume that more of the knights men close in on the scene and do some more crossbowing at the yeki. So in order to focus on our heros fate, I decide to be done with the fight, and roll for some Behind the Screen Damage (BTSD). A roll on the BTSD table indicates only slight injury for the yeki, but since it has exhausted it’s endurance during the fight, I decide, that it will retreat, albeit with yet some fearsome growling.

Now, what happend to Rengwo? The rules say that damage suffered in combat is just a placeholder until after the fight. Now we’ll find out how bad things really got, by applying the Battle Damage rules.

The rolls for damage severity and diagnosis difficulty are modified by number of attacks after the first. I decide, that I’ll count the fall as another attack, so this modifier will be +2. For damage severity I roll a 3, +2 thats a staggering severity of 5D, and for diagnosis difficulty I roll a 2, adding +2 thats a formidable difficulty of 4D. So, what does this mean? Well, properly diagnosing Rengwa’s injury would be a formidable task, to be rolled with 4D under intelligence + medic skill. And to treat the injury would be a staggering task requiring a roll of 5D unter intelligence + medic skill.

Assuming one of the Rengwo’s retainers to be somewhat versed in first aid and of average intelligence I decide that the target number for those rolls would be a 9.

I fail the diagnosis roll with a 17 on 4D, the squire has no idea what’s wrong as he tends to the stunned and wounded Knight, and haphazardly patches him up. But there’s still hope: the Immediate Action Damage Control rule, allows a roll under “double medical” with 2D to lower the damage severity to “easy” (1D). Assuming a skill of medic-2 that would be a target number of 4. I roll 2D and get a lucky 3. What ever the squire did to help Rengwo, save him it did. Rengwo comes to and says “Thanks squire, it’s just a scratch, I’ll be fine”. He’ll recover within a days rest.

Lessons learned

Once again, Traveller 5 surprised me. This turned out to be a fun little solitaire adventure. I deliberately made this a borderline case with the opponent so much stronger than our hero. And I must admid, that I used rather high stats for Rengwo, to kind of get to a somewhat fair fight. Also the 3D damage for a crossbow might be a bit much. I just made it up, there is no crossbow in the Traveller 5 core rules. In the end however, this didn’t make much of a difference. After all it probably is ridiculous to try to melee with a six-legged tiger. Realistically, there’s just not much of a chance to succeed — and survive — at all.

It was interesting to note how quite a few rolls were automatic successes. The fight proper did take no more than 8 dice rolls, with quite a bit of action covered. Also, the BTSD rule and the Battle Damage rules help to focus on role playing an interesting story, and puts the focus on the characters. Every dice rolled seemed to make a difference in a sensical way. After beeing rendered out of action, it really does matter what any supporting characters choses to do. A well trained medic can be crucial to decide between quick recovery, severe injury with prolonged healing time or even death. The oracle of the dice guides the story as to how difficult diagonsis and treatment of an injury might be. Lot’s of prompts and opportunities for interesting role playing.

On the other hand it took quite some page flipping through the rules, to work the whole thing through. Something I would like to avoid at the table as much as possible. I feel just to recapitulate what was going on rules wise seems to be somewhat complicated, even at second glance. Traveller 5 uses some unusual mechanics, and I hope to develop some kind of intuitive feeling for when rolls are just not necessary. Be it because they would be automatic successes or simply wouldn’t matter much for a fun experience. After all Traveller 5 author Marc Miller advises his readers about the ROARN rule: Resolve Only As Really Necessary.

In Sprague de Camp‘s novell by the way, the yeki is caught and rendered out of action not by hand to hand combat, but by setting up a large net trap — by ingenuity rather than brute force. At the table, this kind of resolution would require planning and old school style negotiation in the first place, not some tedious dicing duell. And as in old-school games, in Traveller 5 one should try to avoid fights as much as possible, unless sound planning literally provides for automatic success. I like that!

I’d be happy to receive some comments by those experienced with Traveller 5 who might happen to read this post.

46.656 Psychedelic Landscapes

So here’s a table you might want to use in your next science fiction or plane hopping campaign.

I came up with this while starting to prep for a science fiction campaign I’m planning to run some time soon. It’ll use the Traveller5 rules set, but that’s just a side note.

So right now I try to read as much science fiction stuff as I manage, things like Dune of course, various stories by Poul Anderson, Jack Vance, parts of the Darkover Series by Marion Zimmer Bradley. I also binge the original Star Trek series for inspiration, and I marvel at pictures of imagined futuristic and psychedelic landscapes. Do an image search for “science fiction landscapes” or “psychedelic landscape” … see what I mean?

I adore those retro-futuristic, quite possibly substance induced visions of the future, conceived in our own 1960ies to 1980ies.

d66 The land … The sky … Over the horizon …
11 coagulated caramel greyish purple a spherical station
12 spined blood colored hills color of thick dark blood a majestic dragonlike flyer
13 blockish hills like colorful toffees a deeper blue the hazy view of a ringed planet
14 green rolling hills foggy anthrazite dust a distant tubular structure
15 lush tropical forrest a freakish green myriads of tiny insects
16 endless patterns of industrial structures a gradient of cobalt blue to sparkling cyan a moon that appears too close
21 endless waves of industrial waste the color of sulfur shuttles trafficking
22 flat with occasional polyhedral shapes monotonous light blue a disk shaped station
23 like the rendering in an 8 bit computer game sepia colored with feathery pink clouds some batlike flyers
24 a rough desert like colored inks bleeding into each other foreboding dark clouds
25 swampy with occasional cone shaped hills almost white the cube like silhuette of the high port
26 a sea of turquois doted with myriads of steep hilled islands a crisp blue with floating ice crystals egg shaped pods traveling silently along invisible lanes
31 an endless storm beaten ocean a cold blue mist a distant air ship
32 a sprawling metropolis hazy red large birdlike creatures, homing in on their nests for sun down
33 wavey hills of reflecting metal eternally black, an endless starfield streaks of toxic industrial smoke
34 oddly peaceful rural idyll overcast with dense clouds a massive globular structure
35 a maze of deep gorges and canjons purple with yellow clouds a perfect rainbow
36 hills like burned sienna and a meandering river of quicksilver a wierd multicolored haze a strip of green light
41 a lattice of multilayered longitudinal structures a perfect gradient of blues two disks of setting suns
42 a decaying primordial forrest soaked with moisture the waning crescent of a close moon
43 vast yellow steppe smelling of creosote a turmoil of reddish clouds and gases silhuettes of floating islands in the far distance
44 iridescent vastness of transparent foilage filled with floating seeds the bright shining of the galactic core
45 an endless plain of fine white sand purple and black a veil of rain in the distance
46 hills of purple grass dotted with hulking grazers a canopy of stars colorful reflections
51 rust colored steep mountains a foggy purple to dark blue gradient feathery floating particles that reflect a distant light
52 towering pillars piercing through the mist scatterd grey clouds and beams of sun light a hazy premonition of what might be tomorrow
53 dusty rubble and harsh craters a perfect gradient from dark blue to almost white some fog far in the distance
54 dunes of colorful sands like ground marble a dull grey multicolored clouds bathed in sunlight
55 a sea of white dunes a gradient of light blue to almost black the plume of a space ship, rocketing into the sky
56 seemingly organic bulging formations a dazzling bright yellow looming cubic masses of floating habitats
61 semi-liquid multicolored plains swirls of multicolored gases chromium reflections of a ship passing by at low altitude
62 vast terrasses of grey slate a low haze of blue the notion of deep space
63 floating islands of rock on a sea of lava a dull, monotonous light blue some pink reptilian flyers
64 a large coastal delta, with mangroves and occasional villages a gradient from orange to red the hazy silhuette of a close by artificial world
65 a semi-liquid oily surface a gradient from sulfuric yellow to cobalt blue towering stalagmites of the arcology
66 monumental ice capped mountains criss-crossed with red stripes the shining swirl of the galaxy

Just in case you don’t know what d66 stands for: this is a random table to be used with two six sided dice. Roll once for each collumn, and just roll two regular dice and read the first one as tens (a 5 becomes 50 for example) and the second die as ones (just read as is). You could use differently colored dice, so you can tell which one denotes the tens. I simply roll which ever two dice I can grab and read the one that lands more leftish of the other as tens.

Have fun spacing out!

Getting to know Traveller 5

A simple Brawl

So, I recently got the Three Big Black Books on ebay. The precious package arrived last week and I’m slowly starting to get a grip on the huge amount of information and the organization of these three mighty tomes – together they’re almost 700 pages of Sci-Fi goodness.

So to get a feeling for the system, lets quickly whip up two characters and have them face off in a brawl. I spared the regular character creation system for now and just rolled up two Universal Personality Profiles or UPPs and gave equal skills in unarmed combat to both contestants.

Here’s Roy Red: 37A578, Unarmed-2, Fighter-0

Roy’s pretty weak with a Strength of only 3, but then he’s quite tough with an Endurance of 10 (that’s the “A” in his UPP). Interesting … maybe he suffered some kind of handicap during his prior career but thereby learned how to live through adversities.

Gary Green: 755B59, Unarmed-2, Fighter-0 is of average Strength, but much less enduring then Roy (Endurance is 5 versus Roy’s A). Also Gary is somewhat less dexterous than Roy (Dexterity 5 vs. Roy’s 7).

Let’s see how this will work out in the fight. Note, that I’ll not take into account any of the other stats. Just for the sake of an example, I assume that Gary and Roy got into an argument, and finally Gary started to attack Roy physically.

Unarmed combat uses the melee rules found on page 203 of Book 1 “Characters and Combat”. First thing to do is figure out each characters “melee number”, shortened “MN”.

Roy’s MN is Stregth 3 + Figther-0 + Unarmed-2 = 5, whereas Gary’s MN is Strength 7 + Fighter-0 + Unarmed-2 = 9.

Now in order to effectively attack an opponent each of the two needs to roll two dice (2D) under a target number derived as attackers MN (or AMN) minus defenders MN (or DMN). So Gary would need to roll 9 – 5 = 4 or less on 2D to hit Roy, while Roy would need to roll 5 – 9 = -4 on 2D to hit Gary. Obviously the latter is not even possible.

But now consider this little gem of gaming rules: the target number can be modified by Dexterity, which can be spent as bonus points until it is used up. So Roy still can have a chance to hit Gary if he spends Dexterity Points to increase his chances to successfully hit Gary. Also each combatant can only engage in a number of combat rounds equal to his Endurance. After that he’ll only be able to continue attacks at a significant penalty (with regard to this penalty, there unfortunately seems to be an error in the rules, so let’s skip this for now).

But let’s see how this brawl will play out:

RoundGary 755B59 MN 9Roy 37A578 MN 5
1– starts the brawl punching Roy: AMN 9 – DMN 5 = 4. The Target number gets bumped up by using up 2 Dexterity Points thus making it a 6. Gary rolls a 4 and lands a blow causing 7 points of damage (that is damage equal to Gary’s Strength of 7)
– Roys blows do no harm
– takes 7 points of damage, his Endurance is now down to 3.
– Roy is panicking and invests all his 7 Dexterity Points into his attack. Also, since Gary started the brawl, Roy gets a +1 to hit back: AMN 5 – DMN 9 + 7 +1 = 4. But alas, he rolls a 6 and thus fails to retaliate.
2– Gary, now even more angry at Roy tries to punch him again: AMN 9 – DMN 5 = 4. He almost seems to go berserk and invests his remaining 3 Dexterity Points. So he’d need to roll a 7 or less on 2D. But he rolls an 8 and fails to hit Roy this time.– Roy, having spent all his Dexterity Points in the first round can’t do anything but try to avoid Gary’s incoming punches. No roll needed or possible.
3– Gary, tries to hit again but now he rolls a 7 against his target number which is now an unmodified 4.– Roy evades Gary’s attacks. No roll needed or possible.
4– Once more, Gary tries to land a blow, but again rolls a 7 against a 4.– Roy evades, but his Endurance, which was lowered from A to 3 in the first round, is now spent. He staggers. No roll needed or possible.
5– Finally, before Gary is exhausted, he tries to head butt Roy, but again fails his roll with a 6 versus 4.– Roy can hardly keep to his feet, but dodges once more. No roll needed or possible.
6– Gary is exhausted just as Roy is, the fight stops.– Roy slumps onto a bench, wiping his bloody nose.

Now, while it felt somewhat odd, that Roy could only effectively roll dice in the first round, I find this little experience quite interesting and a refreshing change from your usual D&D roll down the hit points fights.

First, there is this unique strategy option with allocating Dexterity Points to individual attacks. Do you spent them all at once? little by little? Only as things seem to turn against your favour?

Second, I very much like the exhaustion rules. This inhibits fights becoming endless non-sensical dicing duels.

Third, and I think that’s the one I like best: This fight is technically over after 5 rounds without anyone beeing killed, not even unconscious.

Obviously violence just can’t settle this conflict: time for role playing!

Also, as a finishing note for this post, I love how those utterly frugal stat blocks of the two characters are used to maximum effect. And I can totally see how some Traveller enthusiasts have put it: Traveller 5 comes round full circle to it’s Classic Traveller roots!

PS: in fact on page 127 of book 1 there is a rule on “Spectacularly Stupid” rolls when the target number is lower then the number of dice to be rolled: Roy’s player could have decided to try to roll a 3 on 3D every round after the first (that is a one on each of the three dice). Thus fishing for “Spectacular Success” would be highly unlikely with a probability of < 1%, but I’d surely add to the fun. I also like the witful diction …

Thoughts about combat rounds in OD&D

In our games of Original D&D combat rounds usually follow a rather loose routine. Out of habit I usually begin combat time by asking to roll for initiative. Thinking about what I’ll describe in this post, I now believe, that this is a bad habit!

Order of actions should not only depend on random die rolls but just as well on tactical decisions made by the players. At any rate, the way things usually develop, actions are declared and rolled for as everyone sees fit. This tends toward being a hot mess, but most of the time combat gets dealt with quickly and entertainingly and usually without too much complication or the feeling of things being unfair.

Yesterdays game however offered a rather standard situation that illustrated, how an ordered combat round would have made quite a difference. The setup of the scene was like this:

Three player characters, lets call them Sander the Medium, John the Acolyte and Gregory the half-elven Veteran-Medium, walked down a winding path towards the infamous parish of Nulb, when they were waylaid by a bunch of bandits. A roll for surprise revealed that no side was surprised, the player characters noted some movement in the shrubs ahead and could discern the crooks ready to attack them. Another roll indicated a distance of some 50 yards. I narrated how three bandits got up and aimed with their bows (a long distance shot with a short bow as I realise now), and how another three bandits began charging at the PCs wielding spiked clubs.

Order of actions

Now I asked the players for actions, and to roll for initiative. The players of John and Gregory declared to ready their weapons and move for cover. The player of Sander declared to throw a sleep spell at the attackers, and since the group won the initiative I let him roll for numbers of hit dice affected right away. He rolled high, a 12 if I remember correctly, so no doubt he put all of the attacking bandits to sleep … at once … no bow shots, no clubbing … Combat had ended (for now) before it’d begun, with not much to do for the other two player combatants – a dull victory.

OD&D has no fixed rules on order of combat, but our house rules document does. With a nod to the Chainmail rules the order in a combat round is stated thus:

  1. Check for surprise
  2. Declare actions and spells
  3. Roll for initiative
  4. Movement and ranged attacks both sides (!) in initiative order.
  5. Spells take effect (!)
  6. Melee attacks both sides in initiative order
  7. Second ranged attacks for units/characters that did not move during the movement phase.

You will have noticed, that I had skipped the ranged attacks, before the sleep spell took effect. And clearly the scene might have developed quite differently, had I let the bandits loose their arrows just before the sleep spell put them to sleep. The odds for the player characters wouldn’t have been so bad, since a bow shot at Sander would have been at a -4 for distance, and the shots at the other two player characters would have been at a -6 for distance and cover. Still I believe the scene would have felt much more tense and uncertain if I had kept to the proper order. With a slim chance Sander might have been hit, while casting the spell, which would have negated its effect completely. Much more would have been at stake and the victory they achieved would have felt like much more of an accomplishment.

There is also a story telling aspect to this. Casting spells is never easy, it takes time and effort. Introducing a logical break between the declaration of casting a spell and having said spell take effect illustrates this.

Spell Casting in Combat

In order to add some interest and “save” the encounter, I whipped up two more bandits who’d sneaked around the PCs and where now charging in from their flanks. Gregory declared his own sleep spell, but was meleed by one of the bandits, so I ruled he lost his concentration on casting his spell. Sander got hit badly by the other bandit, lost all but one hit point, but could strike back with his staff, downing the bandit, which again caused the other bandit to loose his morale and flee.

Thinking about this I believe here is another mistake. Gregory shouldn’t have lost his sleep spell. He should have lost his concentration only if he’d got hit successfully by his opponent. But the opponent missed his attack roll. Again OD&D has no fixed rules on this, and the situation seemed to be logical. However the original Dungeon Masters Guide is quite explicit on this, and with good reason I think:

“Being struck by something during casting will spoil the spell”

and

“Any successful attack, or non-saved-against attack upon the spell caster interrupts the spell.”

In fact as I see it now, the first sleep spell should have been at stake to be spoiled by a bow shot, while the second should have taken effect as the spell caster was not hit while in melee.

Putting the two topics of this post together also hints at an important tactical option. Casters who notably begin casting spells should become preferred targets for ranged attacks, in order to prevent them from casting.

So here it is, two seemingly minor details which can add so much interest and tactical depth.

Note to self

  1. when declaring combat time, focus on proper order of actions!
  2. whenever an opponent starts to cast a spell, be sure to describe to the players how he does so!

A system-agnostic magic system?

System-agnostic seems like a contradiction in itself. Let it be a conundrum to solve (thanks @anahata).

What I’m actually pondering here is a set of magic rules for tabletop rpgs, that would work across a variety of systems. Say it should plug in effortlessly into OD&D and Classic Traveller, but also work with GURPS or Fudge, and maybe even more story telling focused games like FATE or PbtA-Games.

If you think of magic spells as entities that actually break or alter the rules of any given game, it doesn’t seem too far fetched, to have them interface in a sensible way with differing base rules … I hope.

Why?

The undeniable advantage of popular gaming systems is their relatively wide spread availability, a lot of players might already have the relevant book, or can access it easily.

As I like to play old games, or maybe not so popular game systems, I usually don’t expect my players to shell out money for a non-main stream gaming book, or to tediously search the second hand market for a copy.

For players of mundane types as fighting-men, rogues or simple adventurers this usually isn’t a big deal, but the magic users player will at some point want to reference the exact wording of some spell … so she’ll need a book … a spell book possibly.

For this exact situation a freely available (think Creative Commons, OGL …) and easily accessible (free indexed PDF, print yourself at cost at the local copy shop) would be ideal.

So let’s see what can be done …

What’s in a Spell?

I think if you look at the various spells in, say D&D and GURPS, there are certain recurring elements:

  • The spells effect
  • Time to cast
  • Range to cast
  • Duration of the spell
  • Restrictions

The spells effect usually conveys a narrative right, like legitimating the player to state how the magic user moves through a wall, conjures a demon or transforms into a giant mantis or whatever. Under other circumstances, this narration would break the rules of the game. That’s why you need magic. Sometimes the narration directly accesses gaming mechanics, like a fire ball doing 6d6 damage … that’s rules system specific … that’s going to be the difficult part.

Time to cast, range and duration are simple and universal. Even in the far future or in the most unlikely fantasy realm time will come in seconds, minutes and probably also hours days, and so on, and range can always be measured in terms of real world length measurement. Nothing gamey here, use SI units.

Restrictions are important – they tell you when, and only when it is allowed to break the rules by using magic and what kind of effect this has on the base game moving along. Those restrictions make the game fair and playable. Common restrictions are:

  • Spell slots
  • Spell levels
  • Spell cost, in terms of mana, fatigue points, gold, rare ingredients
  • Time and range also act as restrictions
  • agreement and / or support of some super natural being in case of clerical magic

As already said, time and range come in real world SI units, and gold, ingredients and a deities opinion about magic are part of the narrative. But spell slots, levels, mana points are rules-specific, so this is where a “system-agnostic” system would need to substitute alternative, self-contained rules.

First take at universal magic *rules*

This is a work in progress … two basic ideas:

Spells have varying impact and effectiveness, this could be modeled by an abstract spell complexity on a range from 1 (low complexity, easy to cast), to 10 (high complexity, hard to cast).

Magic users probably will be more or less apt at working spells. This could be modeled by some magical aptitude stat. This might be an existing stat, like intelligence (INT) in the original game, it might be derived from a combination of existing stats, or it might be newly added to a given game system.

I think a magical aptitude in the usual 3d6 range from 3 to 18 should be in order. I know, this is somewhat specific, but it also is a very common range for gaming stats, facilitating success rolls with 1d20, 3d6 or derivatives thereof like 2d6, 4d6 or 2d20 with advantage/disadvantage. Also, if multiplied by 5 the 3-18 range converts to 15-90, which is convenient for percentile based systems, and there are commonly known ways, do convert 3-18 to the -4 to +4 range as used in Fudge and FATE.

Now put this together … How about this, just set up a matrix with the difference of magical aptitude and spell complexity:

Spell Complexity
Aptitude12345678910
3210-1-2-3-4-5-6-7
43210-1-2-3-4-5-6
543210-1-2-3-4-5
6543210-1-2-3-4
76543210-1-2-3
876543210-1-2
9876543210-1
109876543210
1110987654321
12111098765432
131211109876543
1413121110987654
15141312111098765
161514131211109876
1716151413121110987
18171615141312111098

This already seems to be somewhat usable to me.

For example, if a magic user with magical aptitude of 12 wanted to cast a spell of complexity level 2, he’d need to roll a 10 or lower on 1d20 or 3d6 … depending on the base rules in action. On a success, the spell would work as expected, on a failure it would fail with some narrative consequence told by the GM.

In a system with vancian magic spell slots, this success roll could indicate, whether the mage managed to learn the spell, and is able to use it safely from then on.

It’s obvious that a character with low magical aptitude and little experience will never manage to work high complexity spells. Or only under certain circumstances, yet to be defined. Seems alright to me.

Now, since those odds seem somewhat depressing, lets add some modifiers:

Experience

Measured on an abstract scale from 1 to 10, experience could be used as a direct modifier. The experience number could represent years of study in a story telling game, or be a derivative of character level in a more classical approach.

As an example, a Mage with aptitude 12 and 5 years of experience would need to roll a 12 or less in order to work a complexity level 5 spell (base number 7 and +5 for experience).

Time

A magic user might invest more or less time into working a spell. Modifiers could look like this, with a basic time to work a spell being hours:

SecondsMinutesHoursDaysWeeksMonthYears
-2-10+1+2+3+4

In essence, this would make it possible for a high experience mage to cast a spell within seconds, while his apprentice might take month or even years to master the complicated ritual.

The time to cast could be further quantified by rolling a d6, so 1-6 seconds for a combat spell, or 1-6 days for some necromantic ritual.

Cost

The magic users might invest a fraction or multiple of the base cost into working the spell. Again, think mana, fatigue points, gold … what ever your system uses. Modifiers could look like this:

Cost multiplier1/101/41/21210100
Modifier-3-2-10+1+2+3

You might think of yet other possible modifiers, but I think this basically covers it.

The actual Spells

I think in order to approach a wide range of spells in a generic way, I’d try a syntax based approach like in GURPS improvised magic, Maze Rats or Magic in the Moment, over on the Papers and Pencils blog: combinations of generic magical nouns and verbs like conjure, banish, hasten, heal, harm, fire, water, demon, monster and so on.

The actual number of magical words going into a spell could be used as yet another modifier. The more words, the higher the penalty ….

As I said, it’s a work in progress. I’ll try to model some commonly known spells with this system and see how it goes. Maybe start with good old light, heal light wounds, sleep and fireball. The players will certainly want those 😉