Into the Void Ref’s Notes 10

This last session was really fun but didn’t really go the way I intended, which is fine. The players did some unexpected things, to which I responded by planning variations to the planned encounters, which they then didn’t encounter for very logical reasons. Lots of fun stuff prepared and not used. No big deal. I’ll repurpose that stuff for future games.

That battle with the megabeetles went much longer than I expected. Giving the beasts a non-lethal but incapacitating chemical spray attack worked really well for making the encounter more interesting. A bit of flavor. Kind of a vomit flavor, of course, but flavor none the less. One thing to consider for the future is that giving a creature or character the equivalent of combat armor protection makes them really hard to hit. So if they have such protection, they don’t need that many characteristic points to obliterate. A total of 25 hits to be destroyed, if the PCs are using autopistols and autorifles, is plenty. That’s tough. It will take them two or three hits to kill the thing, at least. Likewise, having the character Flint wearing actual combat armor essentially made it impossible for the creatures mandibles to hurt him. This was good, since two of the rest of the group were down on the ground barfing, but could make it too easy for him to deal with adversaries in the future. Need to keep this in mind. As it turns out, the fight with the megabeetles was probably the most danger the PCs have been in thus far.

When we got to the big battle at the end (or potentially a big battle), the players had been smart enough to bargain with the rebels and repair the wrecked ship’s laser turret. I had planned to have the troops and the rebels have a big fight, but I was going to “storytell” most of that, and keep the action and die rolling at the PC level and maybe detail the actions of a couple of the important rebels. As it turned out, by blowing up the Grav Carrier with the ship’s laser, they were able to demoralize the bad guys and end the fight with no rebel casualties. More smart play from my players. They are really good at using their heads and solving problems without risking their necks too much.

Soooo…now the players are still on planet Uetonah. They realize the person they were seeking is there of his own free will. They will certainly be able to salvage that working dual pulse laser turret, so that’s going to provide some nice income. The issue of whether the Pachyderms are sentient and can be proved so is unresolved. An NPC that is involved is still unknown the the PCs. Lots of stuff they could discover, but should they? How much railroading do I do? I’m thinking none.  I still have some encounters ready on Uetonah, but these can be reassigned to new game sessions. I’ll prepare for the next game assuming that the PCs will salvage that turret and get off the planet. I expect the next session may involve a lot of bookkeeping and and logistics for the players.

This was game session 10. I’m very happy to have been running this campaign this long.  I think the story is developing nicely. We all seem to be enjoying it. Once of the nice things about Traveller is there is no monster manual. While there are standard ship  designs and weapons, it’s much less cookie cutter than D&D.  This makes it a lot easier for the referee to keep the game surprising for the players. What fun is exploring the unknown if all is known? The players have been to just a hand full of planets thus far, all near the frontier.

An issue that Jeff Koenig and I have discussed is the nature of money and banking in an interstellar setting with no FTL communication. I asked for advice on the Traveller RPG Facebook page and got some really good advice and ideas, kind of in line with what we were already thinking.

A combination of encrypted “debit cards” – unhackable and super secure – that can be “charged up” with credits at an appropriate bank where the PCs have their funds stored. Funds can be added directly to the cards themselves at points of transactions or even card to card, and then stored in a secure bank at first opportunity, or sent there directly via x-boat. The imperial x-boats, in addition to mail, carry banking and financial data that is updated at each stop.

Because “commerce is the glue that holds the Imperium together”, there are incredibly harsh punishments for financial crime, and super effective detection systems for such crime. All this makes the system work well. Because no one want to get in trouble for jacking with the electronic system, card robbery is also very rare. Crooks may steal currency, but not cards. They’ll not even force a card to card transaction, as these are super traceable. Local currencies must conform to Imperials standards. Actual physical currency can be carried. Some ships carry commodities that can be traded in a pinch, precious metals, etc.

This is all “background” info. All our PCs will need to determine is how many credits do they keep on their personal cards at any one time, and if they have other commodities they can trade aboard their ship. So – each PC needs to keep a total for credits in the bank and credits on their card. If a card is lost or destroyed, the money is gone. Players will probably want to keep some actual Imperial currency on their person.

 

Into the Void Ref’s Notes 9

This game was supposed to happen last month, but life got in the way and we had to postpone. It was worth the wait. Lots of fun. We met yesterday (Sunday) at our usual spot, Madness Games & Comics.  As is my habit, I got there early to get us a good table. One of the employees noticed that I was setting up for an RPG and suggested a table near a column in the store, where I could put the GMs chair at the head of the table and not block an aisle. Nice guy. I struck up a conversation with him, telling him how much we enjoy the store and appreciate the free gaming space, and that each of us always tries to buys something after we play to help support the place. He told me they really appreciate it, and that there are a few groups that not only don’t buy anything, but leave a huge mess at the gaming table. Well, those people need to be taken out and publicly caned. Madness it the BEST, and needs to be supported and respected!

Anyway, back to the game. I’d had some time to plan this game. As usual I’d gone through numerous versions of the session. Numerous possible trajectories for the story. I knew I wanted some really fun action in this session. Last session was nearly all roleplaying, which is great, but we needed some violence. The trick of course is to lead the PCs to the action in a way that makes sense. They still had some work to do finding clues to start leading them to the person they were seeking.

In the olds days I hated having the party separated, but with my current gaming group, over both my campaigns, I don’t mind it too much. Of course eventually I want the team united, but I don’t mind moving back and forth between two or three groups of PCs now. I just make notes, and try move from one group to another pretty quickly, giving them all something to do. This was particularly useful on Sunday, as the team was split into three groups, all looking for clues in different ways. I had four clues ready for them, and was able to work two of them into the game successfully since the team was working this way. I was on my way to discovering this kind of GMing technique for investigative games, and then the GURPS Mysteries book articulated it really well. That book has great advice for GMing investigative games, regardless the system. I recommend it.

The other advice I’ve taken heed of lately — well — I can’t remember where I read this, but it’s to have a third party involved in the story. You need the heroes, their adversaries, and at least one other entity or organization that can provide help, hindrance, information, or otherwise simplify/complicate the story (or in this case game). In the case of my game, I’m using some NPC organizations to let me, as GM, give the PCs a bit of help when they are stuck, but it all fits in well with the story. It’s taken me decades to really learn this simple lesson.

So, we had some nice action during a grav bike chase in the bioluminescent Pachyderm trails through the jungles of Planet Uetonah.  I used the same rules I homebrewed for the mining pod close-quarters ship combat we used in Session 7. They work pretty well. I don’t want our sessions to turn into tactical ship/vehicle combat that slows everything down, and these rules are doing the job. They keep the game moving, offering just enough structure that I’m not just “making stuff up.” The players have some agency and results are still determined by the dice.

The players, of course, threw me a few curveballs. I had a much more complex layer of tunnels through the canopy above the Pachyderm trails I was hoping they would enter, but their use of grenades against their pursuers was very effective. I used that noise of the grenades as the reason the giant snake creature inhabiting the upper system of tunnels was attracted to the action, and it then of course chased them. I made it damned hard to kill. Took a lot of grenades to put it down, and even then it was only unconscious. Tough bastard!

I had lots more stuff planned but we ran out of time. Rather than rush through more stuff probably mess up some fun encounters, I stopped the session a the three hour mark. Plenty left to do in late July, and time for me to modify it more and make it better.

I’m loving this game.

 

Into the Void Ref’s Notes 8

Wow, eight games! For some reason if feels like a milestone. It’s hard enough to make the time to game and to get the guys all together, but it is worth the effort. The Sunday afternoon game time seems to still be a good time to play. I would love to play more than once a month, but it’s rough. Weeknights are not good for most of us, and weekend time is at a premium.

Ready to play last Sunday!

This last session involved a lot of bookkeeping for the PCs, trying to decide how to split the loot and/or reward for the stuff they obtained in the last session. Lots of deliberation. I was worried they would be bored with it, but of course it was their decision to spend that time, so I just let it go for quite a while. They were in Jump Space, so they needed something to do.

Anyway, they are now at the beginning of a new series of sessions, and as usual their activity has given me lots of ideas for things to do in the next few games.

I was reflecting on the nature of Classic Traveller yesterday, as I often do, and was thinking about the benefits of a game that doesn’t really have experience levels or experience points. When I played this game nearly 40 years ago the lack of a substantial progression system seemed like such a bummer. Now I think it’s great. Really keeping track of the passage of time in the game allows the PCs to take advantage of the very long method of improving their skills, but doesn’t make it the focus of the game. It also means that you don’t have to begin a campaign by slowing getting the PCs “up” to a level where you can have the “real fun.” They don’t start out super-powered, but they aren’t weak either. This is always an issue with D&D. 1st-level characters are so easy to kill, and since the game is so combat-centric I think it’s a real problem.

So as the GM, I find it very liberating to not really need to consider the experience level of the PCs when designing or running a game. They are skilled humans. If they get shot with a plasma rifle they will probably die. After four years of play, they will probably still die if hit by a plasma rifle. It frees me up to do what I want with the game, and not focus on levels or experience points. It also allows us to take our time with the campaign. We’re not rushing through this. We play for about three hours, and when I think we’re at a stopping point, we stop. I go home and think up the next few encounters, problems, and challenges. It all just makes the game a lot better.

All of this, however, also forces me attempt a lot more creativity in the campaign. I swear, for each session I spend a week coming up with ideas, making notes, writing up the session only to start over, then on Sunday morning before the game I get up, sit at my desk in state of panic because I don’t like what I’ve got so far, and then it all comes together. I assemble the pieces I’ve got, come up with contingencies plans, think up some NPCs that might be memorable, and the game seems to be enjoyable to the players and to me.

I do think that in the future I want to give the players a little less accounting stuff to do. That tends to bog things down a bit. Once in a while it is alright, like last weekend, but certainly not every game, or even every four games.  All four players need something to keep them engaged at all times, and I feel like this last game I dropped the ball on that a bit.

Oh, here’s something I found on one of the internet groups for gaming — an article about Lester Dent’s formula for writing an adventure novel. Dent is the author of the well over 100 Doc Savage novels. As an early teen I read about 70 of these books. They are formulaic but entertaining. I had read that Dent had a formula for writing these, but this is the first time I’ve seen it. I think there is some good advice for writing RPG sessions here. Granted, it won’t all work because the players will nearly always do something that you don’t expect, but I think the overall direction of this formula (as well as some of his other advice) might allow a GM to create a nice “filter” to run sessions through. A list of elements to make sure you include. I have made an effort since returning to gaming a few years ago to be a lot more descriptive of location and atmosphere in my cyberpunk and science fiction campaigns. I think I’m going to go through the Dent Formula and make a list of elements I want to be sure to include in every scene I write. It’s just too easy to get going and forget these things.

On a different topic! While preparing for our game Sunday at Madness Games & Comics, among all the Magic the Gathering and D&D players I noticed two guys setting up to play the Fantasy Trip, using the massive and super cool new boxed set from Steve Jackson Games. I was so happy to see someone playing this! I went over and met the two guys who were there, Bruce and Scott. Really nice guys. Bruce told me he’d played a lot of GURPS in years past, and we spent a bit of time talking about such things. He said he recognized my name from online stuff, which tells me what I already knew – I spend way too much time online – but it is nice to make a face-to-face connection!

So, we all connected on MeWe.com, where a lot of the old Google+ groups have migrated. Bruce is sharing writeups of his gaming session, and they are brilliantly written.

Into the Void Ref’s Notes 7

Session 7 presented a couple of challenges. First among them, how to integrate a new PC into the game in a way that was fun, made sense, and enhanced the game. My friend David is the new player. He and I got together last week and rolled up his character. David wrote up a really nice character background and motivation, which helped a lot. Gave me some good motivations for the PC and a good way to drop him in.

Second, I wanted to have a cool ship battle. Starship combat in Traveller, run by the book, is quite boring. It’s like a tactical wargame, watered down, and really lacks the excitement of a dogfight. There are no rules in the basic set for close ship combat, at least not the kind you see in movies. And let’s face it, that’s the fun stuff.

So I made up my own very simple system. I assume a very abstract time frame. We go by turns, all action happening simultaneously as is the Traveller norm. But no defined time increments. Each ship can move as many units (squares or hexes) as its maneuver drive number. Any hard maneuvers require a pilot skill roll. A hit by lasers inflicts 1d6 damage points. When a ship takes 6 damage points, it has to roll on the normal damage tables in the books. The mining pods only have a total of 6 possible damage points, so when all 6 were gone, the pods exploded.

By thinking of the whole thing in more cinematic terms and using this very fast moving system I was able to let the players all be involved in the fight and use their relevant skills. While Roger was skimming the walls of the mine cavern walls, Barney was working to boost the slow Free Trader’s maneuver drive power to better deal with the very fast mining pods. Meanwhile, Flint and Lucky were manning the two laser turrets and blowing up the pods.

OK, sure. Not very detailed. Not a tactical wargame, but that wasn’t the point. My goal was to have a fun, fast moving ship combat that created some excitement and got all the PCs involved. I think it worked.

Traveller this weekend

We’re playing our Classic Traveller campaign this weekend, and I’m very happy to be adding a new player to the mix, my friend David. My current group are guys I was friends with in highschool and I was an occasional participant in their games. Great dudes. This new guy was one of my main gaming group. He’s really excited to be gaming again, and I think it is going to work out really well. I’ve been meaning to invite him for a while, but as I am “the new guy” in this group, I wanted to run it past the lads and make sure they are good with it. They are, so it’s on.

Dave and I got together this last Sunday to roll up his character. He did a really nice background, which will allow me to drop him into the campaign immediately, and in a fun way. None of the old “this guy just shows up and wants to join your crew” sort of thing. Gotta make it cool. The background of his PC is also helping me delve into the nature of another subsector, which is fun.

More after the game. I’m just really happy about this.

 

 

Into the Void Ref’s Notes 6

Session 6 was the first one-shot I’ve run. It was tough. The game was fun, but really we need more than one session. I had to cut out a lot of stuff to squeeze this into one 3-hour session. My players are really good. They play hard, but they are thorough. They take advantage of roleplaying opportunities. They don’t rush. So I think one-shots will be rare.

Didn’t manage to work in any starship combat. That’s still on the agenda. We did get  in a lot of gun shooting, which was on the agenda, so that’s a success. I also managed to drop the seed of the next series of games, so happy about that.

I’m getting more organized with the campaign. The customizable GM screen was useful. I did a reasonable job of giving each PC a chance to use their skills, considering this was really a combat-oriented session. I need to spend some time doing write-ups of weapons, especially non-standard stuff like the “big gun” machine gun I had one of the marines carrying. I made it a submachine gun with a +3 damage. I wanted to make it like the harness-mounted super gun the marines in Aliens used. So I want to work on that.

We used miniatures this time. It was fun, but we didn’t really use an accurate scale. I feel like agonizing over tactical movement slows the game down a lot. The minis were useful to knowing the marching order and general arrangement of the characters. I found that helpful.

I like leaving some loose ends. The PCs know now that there is this alien bug puppeteer species out there in the Void somewhere. It is something for them to worry about. The Void Bugs. Space is big and fully of scary stuff. Evil and dark stuff as much as wonderful and beautiful.

I think I could have done a better job being descriptive in this session. I need to remember that painting a great mental picture for my players is critical.

Into the Void Ref’s Notes 5

Well, Game 5 is over. We’ve done a pretty good job the last few months of playing once a month. This last game got delayed due to a death in the family and then again by my mom breaking her hip, but we got back on track.

I’m real happy with the way this campaign has turned out. My players seem to enjoy not being shot at. They are into the characters and the exploratory adventure theme of the setting. Sure, we’ll do more shooting soon, and some ship combat. After all, we have miniatures now!

Doing the 3 hour play sessions has been really good. I don’t know why that seems short. I guess because our GURPS sessions started out at 5 or 6 hours. I felt a lot of pressure to have a lot of stuff ready, and to really be able to think on my feet as ref. As I’ve said before, it’s easier to prepare for 3 hour session. Another benefit is that it allows me to have these nice breaks in which to really think about where the campaign should go. What could happen. What would be cool. You never really know what players will do. Usually they do the unexpected, which opens up even more possibilities.

The “Into the Void” Classic Traveller gaming group, last weekend at Madness Games & Comics, in Plano, Texas. The best store in the world.

So far in this game the players have only been on two worlds. Mylor, the planet they started on after mustering out of the Scout service, and two worlds in the Precursor system, the moon known as Zal’s World and the now destroyed-by-singularity Precursor Prison Planet. Five games. Three worlds. When you start with Traveller there’s this urge to map out several subsectors very completely. I find that overwhelming. I did map out a few in a very minimal way, but really haven’t fleshed out that much at all.  I know a lot of refs enjoy the whole universe building aspect of Traveller, and dig coming up with all this background and details for all the systems. I don’t have that much time. I’d rather make things a bit looser, fill in details as I go, and go into great detail as the players actually encounter things. It’s just more efficient for me. Yes, this means my campaign isn’t as sandbox-style as some people like, but we seem to be doing alright.

The campaign is decidedly space opera-esque. I don’t think my players are very interested in trying to make money hauling cargo from one system to the other and speculating things. I don’t worry about doing hard science fiction. I’ve decided to make up crazy shit (the confined singularity power generator of the Precursor Prison Planet, with a mind embedded in the gravitational structure of the singularity – yes – this is gibberish – and we don’t care). We’re doing cool stuff and heroics and space epic kind of stuff. Adventure. It’s fun.

Our ships, thus far. More on the way. Learning to paint all over again.

I love point-buy systems. I really do. But damn, it sure is easy to prepare for a Traveller game. In the time it takes me to create a really good NPC in a point-buy system I can pretty much create an entire 3 hour game in Classic Traveller. It would be easy to switch to GURPS Traveller, but I feel like it wouldn’t really be Traveller. It would just GURPS Space, since I don’t even use the standard Traveller universe of the 3rd Imperium. Nothing wrong with the GURPS Space. I just don’t think it would have the same flavor. I feel like Classic Traveller has just enough game mechanics to get by without just being people sitting around a table talking (which of course all these games are, but they need some structure).

A few things I want to do in upcoming games.

  • Make sure that in working up every session I give each PC a chance to use their skills – to shine. I think that in the last game I fell short in that area.  Each character has stuff he is good at – better than everyone else. I need to make sure they always get a chance to be the hero.
  • Do some combat on a big ship. I mean — inside the ship. I want some adventure and danger in a great big starship.
  • Do some spaceship combat. It’s pretty deadly, but we can make it really fun. Each PC has skills that are critical to a good space battle — pilot, engineer, gunner.
  • Work in some of the PCs background elements. Family, enemies, etc. Give ’em something to worry about!
  • Better develop some of the alien cultures. The Glucks, Glee-Cheen, etc. Come up with some new ones.
  • Let the relationships with NPCs they’ve met have consequences. Ronda the Pilot, Zal Twist, Iron Balls McGinty, Rawlph the Gluck, etc, etc. Where the PCs have shown kindness, let it benefit them. Stuff like that. A good NPC from their past is always a good person to save their necks, or to get into trouble again and have the PCs save them! It’s a big universe, but hell, people run in similar circles out on the frontier.
  • I got a nice notebook to keep the campaign stuff in. Now I need to actually use it. Get organized.
  • Read more old science fiction, and new stuff, and steal lots of cool stuff.

 

 

 

Into the Void Ref’s Notes 4

We’re now four games into the campaign, which seems to have acquired some momentum. My players keep coming back, at least. I’ve found an alternate system of character improvement in Classic Traveller on one of the Traveller portal websites, and I may start using it. It’s not that much more generous than the very stingy one in the books, but any improvement would be welcome. Personally, I like that the players in this game aren’t always fretting about experience points and advancement, but still I think it would be nice to give ’em a little something.

This last game the PCs did a lot of “housekeeping” work from the previous session. Stuff they needed to deal with. Ship repairs, turning in scumbags for bounties, etc. Then they set right back out to the same system they’d just left. I’d designed a pretty good encounter for them, and as usual my players used their equipment to great advantage. They understand that combat in this system is deadly. This ain’t D&D 5e. They really use their heads, which I appreciate because I try to give them plenty of opportunity to do so. In the upcoming games I want to put them in situation in which they can use from of their lesser-used skills. There’s a lot that can go wrong on a space ship. Or a planet with a thin, toxic atmosphere.

Cover from “Nor Crystal Tears”, but Alan Dean Foster.

I’m finding this game a lot easier to write for than my cyberpunk campaign. The PCs in this game have at least got some logical rationale for working together. Still, when our forth player can get back to the table, I need to be ready to get our cyberpunk on again. But for now, I’m loving the oldschool Traveller.

I follow several Traveller groups on Google+ and Facebook. There are some fantastic Refs and writers out there. I read some of their material, and it’s just mind blowing. So, so good. And yet, as good as their background material and ships plans and whatnot are, I’m honestly not sure I could use their settings. I’ve started our campaign on the frontier, near the true unknown of the Deep Dark, specifically so I’d not have to worry about Traveller cannon. It’s very freeing to be able to just make shit up. It’s fun. I need to make some notes from the SF short story anthology I’ve been reading too. It’s full of great ideas I may be able to adapt to our game.

Into the Void is at a very fun point right now. The last cliffhanger, I’ll admit, I’m kind of proud of. I can’t wait to continue the story and see what the players do. So much fun. Wish a couple of other old friends were here to play in it — maybe some day.

 

Into the Void – Ref’s Notes 3.

We’ve now played three sessions of my classic Traveller campaign, “Into the Void.” I really should say “our” campaign, because at this point the players are starting to make it their own as well.

A few thoughts.

  • It’s pretty damned amazing how much fun you can have with those three little black books. In some ways they are the barest outline of a game system. Nowhere in them is there even an example of play! And yet they are amazingly complete and flexible. Back in the old days when my friends and I played Traveller one a week, I don’t think we had the experience to appreciate just how well the rules work. Frankly, there weren’t really many complex, “crunchy” systems out there to compare it to.
  • The ship combat system is actually really good. It seems like a ship combat system from a war game, that’s been simplified to fit into a roleplaying game. With small ships at least, combat is something to avoid. In our most recent session (#3), the PCs ship got into a skirmish with a slightly larger ship. We had one round of combat, resulting in the PCs hull taking a hit and depressurizing and the enemy ship having it’s maneuver drive disabled, putting it dead in space. That’s in one round of combat. We didn’t even get to draw the movement vectors on my game mat!
  • The time scales are way different between ship combat and personal combat, so with PCs running around inside the enemy craft during the ship combat, we first did some personal level stuff inside the enemy ship, then the ship combat round, then more inside the enemy ship. The effect was actually really good – very cinematic. I think we all liked it. As Ref, I thought it all fell together well.
  • I’m trying hard not to turn these sessions into dungeon crawls. Now, I think that can be fun sometimes, but it seems too lazy. But I’ll admit — it is tempting. When I’m sitting there, writing, working on ideas, I do sometimes thing “man, it would be easy to have them explore a complex building.” But that’s not the direction I want to go with this. It needs to be about action, ideas, drama, conflict, and story.

Into the Void Ref’s Notes 2

I had some time today, so I started working on the plans for session 3 of Into the Void, my classic Traveller campaign.

As I’ve noted before, playing 2-3 hours, rather than longer games, is helping me come up with good ideas without getting overwhelmed. It also helps me produce about the right amount of content for the session, rather than feeling like I have to have absurd amounts of prep done.

I was talking with my gaming group tonight, and thinking about how the old Traveller games I played as a kid were all “murder hobos in space” kind of games. Then I thought about the rule books. The books are not only very dry, but they don’t give a single example of play! Of course, there were a lot of adventure supplements, but let’s face it, they were dry as hell too, and also contained no examples of play. So it’s no wonder a bunch of 15-year olds could only think of going berserk with plasma guns. In fairness, our Ref did do some sessions based on some science fiction novels. Jack Chalker’s “Well of Souls” novels come to mind. Those were fun games. But as players, we were not very helpful in collaboratively creating an interesting universe.

Well, I’ve got a fair amount of prep to do, but at least Traveller characters are easy to generate. The work is mostly thinking of scenarios, possible contingencies, clues, encounters, rather than a lot of mechanics building NPCs and whatnot.

Oh, here’s a cool picture someone did of a standard Traveller Air Raft.