Into the Void Ref’s Notes Session 29

A few notes about session 29. Not going into too much detail about specifics from the Referee’s point of view as we just started this adventure.

For the first time ever I am using a classic published adventure from the old Traveller books. Two reasons. First, I was having trouble coming up with a good way to take the game at this point. I’ve been collecting the old books, and decided what the heck, let’s do it. Second, after watching some of Seth Skorkowski’s YouTube Videos I feel like I have a new appreciation of both how good many of those published classics are and how to run them.

So if you are in my group, don’t watch Seth’s videos! I might use some of the old scenarios he talks about!

This was one of those session where we had just finished a multi-session adventure. Sometimes deciding which way to take a game is not easy. In order to make this work I needed to get the guys back into space. They had a good reason to do exactly that, but could have decided to do some other stuff first. I might have needed to improvise a better reason. But rather and try to guide them I just sat on my hands. I let them hash it out. No forcing things. If they decided to do something else I would have made a game happen by responding to them. Turns out they did exactly what the scenario needed them to do anyway, so that was cool. We got underway. Sometimes as a gamemaster you have to just let things happen. It’s always better when the PCs aren’t railroaded. I’ve got a folder full of good NPCs and ideas for encounters. I can pretty much always make fun happen with the players’ help.

But I have to admit, it is nice to have DOZENS of concise 1-page adventures from Michael Brown and almost all the classic Traveller adventures and double adventures waiting to be to used.

I had to do a little massaging of the published scenario to fit it into the game, but nothing that major. This is almost always the case. I’m not running the published Third Imperium setting. So a few minor details had to be changed. I ran into this when running the last set of sessions using Michael Brown’s Energy Transfer adventure.

Something I’ve learned from reading Michael’s adventures, and that I’ve become very comfortable with, is finding new ways for PCs to use skills, and coming up with quick rules to determine their effects. For example, allowing the navigator to use his Nav skill to accomplish more efficient travel, save time, and in this case double the amount of time they’d have to accomplish their task upon arrival. They started with 1 hour under normal navigation, but for every 1 he could make his Nav roll by, I gave them an additional hour of time to work before falling into the sun. He made it by 1, so they had 2 hours rather than 1, which helped. I let the Engineer use his skill to gain information about the status of the clearly damaged maneuver drive. This kind of skill use, I think, lets players feel like they are valuable skills. It makes the characters a lot cooler. I had the pilot make a Pilot skill roll to match the speed and attitude of the target vessel. Without that, things would have been more difficult. He has Pilot-4, but he could have failed. Spacewalks and all the rest would have been a lot harder if he’d had to constantly be making adjustments, and using the docking clamp would have been next to impossible.

Once they were inside the ship, I again had to sit on my hands and just answer questions and let them explore. So many of us have been programmed to think that constant action is what makes RPGs fun, but it’s not. Exploration, suspense, information gather, time stress. These all made the game fun.

I can’t wait to continue.


Into the Void Ref’s Notes Session 28

We were one player down this session, but ran his character carefully and safely.

This was the end of a 4-session adventure. Really, it could have been added into the previous session, but I really didn’t have anything ready at the time. One good thing about running short sessions is that it allows you to react to the character’s actions well. It also draws things out a lot.

So here’s something I noticed during this session. At one point a couple of the PCs split off in the air raft, the idea being they could cover the rest of the team from a high vantage point. One of the PCs has good Rifle skill, so he was great as a sniper. The other, Barney, the engineer, was more of a lookout. Barney’s player, William, often puts his character in a lookout position. He seeks a good vantage point, and this has paid off many times for the group, whether playing Traveller or GURPS.  In this particular case it didn’t hurt anything, but it didn’t help either. I could have helped, but it didn’t. As the Referee, I didn’t suddenly invent some threat for him to deal with. Things were as they were. The team had created a good plan. They’d acted rationally. There was no reason some threat would instantly materialize just to keep William entertained.

And the great thing is this: William didn’t need to be entertained. He is a long-time RPGer, and an engaged player. Like the rest of this group, he thinks of the team’s success and how he might contribute to it, rather an worrying about being the constant superstar. So as an adult RPGer, he is able to accept that the actions of his PC did not put him in the spotlight but remain engaged with the game.

I appreciate that. I am a very lucky GM to have a group like this.

Into the Void Ref’s Notes Sessions 27

“Due to reasons” it took while to get to this session. I will admit that I still have a bit of anxiety about each session. I always want it to be the best session ever. Truth is they are all good because I have a table of engaged players who make it good. You can spend all the time you want and have the most incredible stuff prepared but if you players are a bunch of house plants it will not be fun.

Anyway, our gaming group is great. I can’t say that enough.

This was the first time I’ve used a published adventure in our campaign. Though I own dozens of Michael Brown’s short adventures, and I think every one of them is brilliant, this was the first I worked into our game. Michael gives you what you need to run a fun session (or sessions) without, as he says, “stepping on the Ref’s toes.”

This was the culmination of a game spanning four sessions. Over the course of those sessions I think one shot was fired. No one was shot. There were no real “fights.” Four sessions of roleplaying and problem solving.  This is actually not unusual for my campaign and this group, and I’m continually astonished at the ability of Traveller, a great gaming group, a good and flexible scenario, and and adequate referee, to create an engaging and satisfying game.

Maybe everyone else’s games are like this? I have no idea. Growing up playing a monster-killing loot-grabbing style of D&D, superhero mayhem with Champions, and murder hobo style Traveller, I’m just surprised at how well this is going. Had any of us had the skill and desire to do things this way as teens I think it would have been well-received.  As it is, we have fallen into this during our middle-aged years, and that’s fine. I’m just so happy with this campaign. I can’t imagine ending it. Ever.

This was session 27. During session 26 I already knew I wanted to use the Energy Transfer adventure from Michael Brown and I had a “plan” for how it might work in. Needless to say my inventive and resourceful players did not do what thought they would (which I expected would happen). I had to do a little thinking on my feet to create a seamless transition into that scenario for session 27. I’m pretty happy with how that went. As a Traveller referee it was quite satisfying.

As often happens, we ended this series of sessions with a lot of nice loose ends. The campaign continues to generate its own internal drama with long-term NPCs, possible backstabbing and intrigue, and lots of options for the players.

Really, in all likelihood this “story” is not really complete. There are some things they will almost certainly deal with upon returning to their home base on planet Mylor. Fun awaits.

Traveller Stuff
My little custom Traveller campaign notebook (sheets are all in plastic sheet protectors), Classic Traveller Facsimile Edition, and small session notebook with maps, notes, and scenario.

As I prepped for this game I thought a lot about the elegant simplicity of Classic Traveller. Being able to consolidate the important stats of all the NPCs on one page of 5.5″ x 8″ notebook is a hell of a lot simpler than having character record sheets all over the place. I love my games with more complicated characters, but the simplicity of Classic Traveller is nice. It’s genius, really. Marc Miller is a freaking genius. Looking at newer versions of Traveller, Cepheus Engine, and some of the variations on CE like Sword of Cepheus I can see the influence. They are all a bit more complex, but not that much! A Sword of Cepheus character, even one with a lot of spellcasting ability, could easily fit on a note card.

The thing is, when I’m running a game I like all my stuff to be concise and very easy to locate. This is why I’ve taken some rules from the Classic Traveller books as well as the Cepheus Engine stuff and made my own little 5.5″ x 8.5″ binder. The rules we use a lot are all there, as are all the PCs, the important NPCs, the ships, the planets, and the gear. With that notebook, a small notebook with my scenario notes and maps, a copy of the Classic Traveller Facsimile Edition, and a copy of Cepheus Deluxe or Light, I’m mostly ready to go. I typically bring the Mongoose Traveller Central Supply Catalog along, as well as the Cepheus Engine vehicles book just in case I need it.

I’ll stop blabbering now.

Into the Void Ref’s Notes Sessions 25 and 26

Sessions 25 and 25 of our campaign may have had the fewest rolls of dice ever. That being said, I think they were good sessions. There was a lot of discussion, decision making, and roleplaying, which I think is the point really.

As this goes on I am more and more impressed with our gaming group. They are just great players. Given the choice, they will always discuss things and make good decisions. When something surprises them and they have no time to mess around they take action.

That’s about all I have to say, other than express my frustration that we can’t play every week.

Into the Void Ref’s Notes Session 24

Well, the PCs have only been back on their home base planet of Mylor for a few hours before they are back in the middle of it again!

Oh, before I forget, this was our first session back in Meat Space in over two years. We played in person.

So, so fun. I wasn’t sure how to start this session(s) when I began thinking about it a couple of weeks ago. They are back in civilized space. Back to their old watering hole the Happy Gluck. Back to old associates, frenemies, and complications. So I started this with a simple title for the session “One Night at the Happy Gluck.” Who doesn’t like a game where a relaxing night at the tavern turns to chaos?

So I came up with some ideas of ways to involve their existing friends and associates at the star port, what could have gone wrong during their absence, and some new NPCs.  One goal, after 9 sessions (taking several months to play) in uncharted space was to reintroduce the players to the NPCs in the game.  As you will see if you read the writeup, they are going to try to rescue the guy who tried to have them killed nine games back. Which is awesome! I love it. Complex relationships in an RPG.  To me, well, this is a huge success for me as the Referee. I am delighted.

We were able to use some of the PC’s more social skills. They of course used tactics even in the tavern, and everyone seemed fully engaged.

I think we are all getting better at this game. I have stated before in numerous places that now, 4.5 years into our campaign and now 24 sessions in, my players are just now really getting the groove of Traveller. Well, that isn’t entirely correct. They have always played the game very well. I guess what I sense is the buildup of the in-game history and lore of their campaign. I’ve run a lot of RPG campaigns in my life, but I don’t think any have reached this level of complexity or been this satisfying. My players of course love it when action happens, but they are equally engaged when they are roleplaying, scheming, negotiating, threatening, sneaking, or investigating.

I think that when everyone is really used to the idea of not leveling up all the time, and not worrying about experience points, the game can unfold in a very natural way.

When new players start with Traveller, I suspect that many are shocked and disappointed by the limits placed on them. No FTL communication. Space travel is expensive and takes a long time. You don’t hop in your ship and get to the other side of the galaxy in 2 hours. You probably use slug throwers for guns, and bladed weapons too. Ship combat is very expensive even if you win, and very prone to getting you killed. While psionics may exist, you probably don’t have that talent. You have to worry about money. AND — you are a fairly typical person. Oh, you ARE a Traveller, and thus more accomplished than trillions who never leave their homeworld, but you are mortal. You will never become that hard to kill.  The list goes on.

All of this kind of flies in the face of science fantasy and a lot of science fiction. Because we are talking about limits, and I think it is the limits in Traveller that make the game challenging and fun.

I’m glad I have a group of friends who can enjoy all this.

Anyway, this session was the opening of yet another adventure for Super Adventure Friends Co.  We are back to our original core group of 3 ex-Scouts and 1 former Army colonel. Four players is very manageable. We’ll certainly play online from time to time and I can get our member in Virginia back involved, and our other regular local member of our gaming group can play whenever he wants (with a little prior notice). It’s all going well.

Into the Void Ref’s Notes Session 23

After a few months of home remodeling and whatnot, we finally played today. We had planned an in-person meeting, but one of our players had a family member with Covid last week so we opted for online. That family member is fine. Thankfully they are testing negative and are well.

A few notes about this session. Not really any action. I had action planned, but as will happen in an RPG the players were very smart and took a lot of time carefully planning and roleplaying some non-action stuff. The result was great problem solving and skill use, and everyone was fully engaged.  There was just no shooting. Now, they were still dealing with the unknown, so the threat of danger is always there. That is fun. That is suspenseful.

This was session 23. The players started this expedition in Session 15. So that is 9 sessions. That is the longest sustained single “adventure” I’ve ever run. I’ve always found “quests” to be difficult to run. They always seem fun for the first few games, then the quest itself feels like a straight jacket for me as a ref. I feel like everyone is getting tired of it. I didn’t feel like that this time. I am glad the expedition is complete and they are back in charted space, but it was fun the whole time.

Likewise, this is the longest campaign I’ve ever run in real time or in game sessions. Granted, we haven’t played THAT many sessions, but we’ve been at it for several years. Adult life has gotten in the way a lot, but we’ve kept at it, and we’ve reached a point that the campaign has developed its own history, and with the discovery of a real threat to the Imperium during the expedition, the PCs have for the first time done something that could potentially affect the entire Imperium. That is very cool, and I really didn’t plan it. After the encounter in sessions 20 and 21 with the sentient planet-wide psionic fungal network, I listened to Marc Miller’s novel Agent of the Imperium, and realized they had discovered something that needs the attention of the highest-level decision makers.  That is very cool.

I’ve heard many podcasts speakers talk about story telling in their games. That is cool. But I don’t feel like a story teller. I think of my GMing as creating a game — creating situations and problems for my players to contend with and solve using their characters and resources. Clearly there is a story, but the story emerges from the play. Today I had no idea what they would do. I set the stage, the dice and rules and I are the world, and the players interact with it. It is nice if I come up with something brilliant and entertaining, but I’m not writing a story.

However, if you are, and your players dig it, that is great. I’ve just been reflected a bit on how I do things and the way I think about things. That’s all.

Anyway, the team got back to their base planet, took care of some stuff like getting paid, passing information on to the proper authorities, and are new all set up for the next game, which more than likely will involve some action and craziness.

After the session, I had all the players add the skills their characters have been studying for the last 4 years of real time permanently to their characters. Character improvements in Classic Traveller are hard to get, and it has just been a great campaign so far, so I just had them add the skills. No roll. Just some improvement. They can now decide what 2 skills they will study during the next 10 or 20 sessions.

Into the Void Ref’s Notes Session 22

Well, Session 22 was a lot of fun. I think my players had a good time.

As always, I feel like I could have been a bit more descriptive with the settings and all, but I’ll give myself a break. When you are GMing there’s a lot to keep track of.

So this game was intended to be the likely culmination of a story seed I planted in session 5, about 4 years ago. Yes, I sat on it that long. I say “intended” because while I had it set up, you can’t control what players do, and I was not going to force it. But it all worked out. The players of course didn’t do everything I expected, but I’ve come to expect that, so my expectations were met.

I go on and on about this, but my group is really good. They are great gamers. They are playing a system that punishes stupid actions. They are adventurous, but they use their head. Their characters use their tech to their advantage. They don’t walk into a situation unprepared, at least voluntarily. So while this session had many chance for grave bodily harm to be inflicted on the PCs, they managed to avoid it.

I knew this was going to be an important session in the campaign. I knew there was greater than normal chance a PC would die, so I wanted it to be very good. I struggled with the design of this session for a long time, writing stuff online, in notebooks, etc. I had a general idea of things, but just couldn’t really bring it together. So I tried something new.

I wrote a 7-page short story of the adventure. I envisioned it like a novel or movie, and I wrote it out. This helped me immerse myself in it and really think Was that fun? Yes, it was fun. Does it make sense? Yes, it does.” So I used that short story as an outline of what could happen. It also gave me some nice, prepared, descriptive text to read or at least use somewhat to provide atmosphere. I’ll often to that anyway, but typically I write my adventures in “scenes” so when they PCs arrive at a new location, if it is one I’ve considered, I’ll have some nice information about the atmosphere.

Overall it was a good way to do things. I don’t know if I’d do it in every adventure, but for this one it worked.

After we finished the session we had a talk, and I had considered resuming the campaign with the team back in civilized space, and not role play the journey home. But we have always resumed exactly from where we left off, and I think it is best to continue this practice. It is fun that way.

Into the Void Ref’s Notes Session 21

Full disclosure. I think I missed doing these for session 20.  Also, this is about more than the session. This is the referee just thinking.

As the days get shorter about this time each year, I always look forward to spending more time on reading and gaming.  Summer, for me, means long days and evening skateboarding sessions. I still work on my gaming and try to run a monthly game, but I only have so much time or energy.

Online sessions have been a real benefit during the pandemic, and of course we’ve been able to to bring in a friend who lives out of state. One part of online session prep that has always been a pain for me is drawing maps. I’ve enjoyed using the many pre-fab maps available on Drivethru RPG, but drawing my own has been a real pain. However, last month I bought a Wacom drawing tablet, and it is making a huge difference. There is a big learning curve to using such and input device, but I’m getting better with it, and it is easier to use than a mouse. It works well with my Macbook, and talks to my Chromebook without any drivers needing to be installed. So I’m enjoying it quite a bit. I found a simple drawing app for the Chromebook, Ibis Paint X, which does what I need it to do. I can set up my maps to scale correctly for Roll20. It’s particularly nice to have the tablet and my chromebook in my backpack during the day. I can work on things while I eat lunch at work.

Our last Traveller session had to be postponed due to technical problems. Turns out my podcast partner’s firewall had suddenly decided it did not like any of the system we use for audio (Roll20 or Discord). We discovered the problem about an hour after cancelling, when simply hotspotting via his cellphone worked like a charm. Lesson learned.

So we’re playing that session next weekend. I’ll get everyone to check their systems the day before to avoid problems. I’m really looking forward to this game. I’m going to go all-out and try to make it a multi-session awesome game.

The group is currently exploring the unknown, which is fun, but I’m kind of looking forward to getting them back to either their own civilization or some other, as it is easier sometimes to created interesting conflict since we have some recurring NPCs. I also need to remember the idea of having three “groups” involved in the sessions – the PCs and a couple of NPC groups or competing interests.  Makes things more interesting.

After that I want to spend a little time back in our sadly under-played GURPS cyberpunk campaign. The idea, however, is to do that one in person, so it may be a while yet. We are not young people, and there are various issues in some of the households which make us wish to avoid the virus, even though we are all vaccinated.

Ultimately, what I’d really like to do is run GURPS Cyberpunk in-person, Traveller online, and I’d like a second Traveller group running online as well. I have one dear friend who lives across the country who is the best game master I’ve ever known, and I really want him involved in a campaign. I miss having him in games.

Omer Golan-Joel has released his new Cepheus Engine variant (speaking of variants), called Cepheus Deluxe. It is essentially an expanded and improved version of his previous Cepheus Light book, which is extremely good (I have it). I’ve ordered the new book in hard copy, and I have it in PDF format already.  As much as I love Classic Traveller, I have to admit I am very tempted to convert our campaign to Cepheus Deluxe. It is that good. There’s so much that Omer’s CE rules do well. One thing I really like about them is that not only are the rules really good, but they are well-organized and the page layout is simple and easy to navigate. The artwork is secondary. These are really perfect Traveller-inspired rules for doing homebrew settings.

I guess this weekend, in addition to preparing for next week’s game, I want to spend some time on my group’s gear, and really get a little better definition of what some of their stuff can do. Combat armor for instance. One of the guys has it. Well, I’ve kind of winged it so far, but I think I want to find some proper armor in the Mongoose Central Supply Catalog and adapt it to my Classic Traveller game. There are a few things like that I need to do. I think I want to also work on a Google Drive central repository for my group to use for their characters and whatnot. I have one already, but I want to really get it working well for them.

My only real comments about Session 21 are as follows. We had a lot of fun. Super fun game. BUT – I blew it. I created what could have been a really great planet and encounter, something that should have been the primary location and focus of a series of sessions, and I used it as essentially a very dangerous fuel stop. Lesson learned. Don’t use your best ideas on things that are not primary missions.

Into the Void Ref’s Notes 19

Once again we played for about 2.5 hours on Roll20, using Discord for our audio. Everything worked pretty well. We spent a little time before we started getting everyone’s audio levels set to be compatible, which was a good idea.

The session was a continuation of the last one. I was pretty happy with it. While the team did have a little ship-to-robot combat, most of this game was decision making, problem solving, and exploration. The two more combat-oriented characters were able to stay engaged, which was great.

When the team is exploring the unknown, the more “social” skills are not as useful (generally). At least when they are not in the midst of some kind of culture. If they are just on a wild planet, bribery, streetwise, etc., aren’t very useful. So I’m kind of looking forward to the team returning to known space again so I can work them into some city-based adventures, or even stuff on a big space station.


Into the Void Ref’s Notes 18

Session 18 was a continuation of the adventure from the previous session, and I suppose part 3 o4 4 in series of games related to an expedition into the Void (unexplored space beyond the Imperial border, going coreward).

As our gaming group has expanded from three players to six, running the game and keeping everyone engaged has become more challenging. This is a good thing. As a Traveller Referee, and gamemaster in general, I think it’s important for me to keep challenging myself. Otherwise, things get stale for all of us. This means that sometimes a session, like the previous one, might not be action-packed. Sometimes it is necessary to set the stage. That is not to say that in session 17 no one did anything. It’s just that they aren’t making constant die rolls and skill checks. A lot of our games are just the players discussing possible actions, and doing things that don’t require a skill roll. I feel like this is kind of different than a lot of games. I’ve never been in a D&D game where there wasn’t a lot of die rolling, a lot of combat, etc. Superhero games of course tend to be constant combat. The trick is to keep players engaged with the game without cramming it full of die rolls and violence. In Traveller, violence will get you dead.

Anyway, in this session the pace picked up a bit. Eventually the party had split into 3 groups (though one group was a group of one). We’ve done enough of this kind of thing that it no longer phases me. They can do whatever they want. I can make it work. Split the party? Sure, go ahead. This works just fine IF your players don’t insist on super accurate timelines. If they are good with letting the GM manage the timing of everything, you can have create a nice flow without railroading the players. I do think it’s important to move back and forth between the groups and the players fairly quickly when running a session like this. I don’t like any player going more than a few minutes without getting to make some decision, do some roleplaying, or being active in some way. They are there to play, not be spectators.

One thing I really considered about the current adventure, on the current planet, is whether or not is would be too tired and expected for them to find what they have found there.  However, I think I’ve planted enough clues and knowledge to be gained on that world that if the players choose to investigate, it will not just a planet where they blew up robots.

But there is nothing wrong with blowing up robots. That can be really good too. As my podcasting partner Jeff K says, an adventure needs ups and downs.

Ooooooo! I just thought of something great to put in there!

Now, all this being said, I have reiterated to the players that they can proceed however they want! If they think this planet is taking too much of a toll on their resources, not on-task, or whatever, they can try jumping to the next system (skipping the standard week of maintenance and risking miss-jump, of course). Hell, they could tell Zal and the Baroness they are done and just return to Mylor. I, as referee, will keep up with them. I have encounters and ideas to throw at them regardless. I want them to really feel free to pursue whatever they want.

One thing I need to do next session is increase my description of the alien environment. That is very important. This time I was so focussed on keeping the game running that I feel like I let that slide a bit.