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.

Into the Void Ref’s Notes 17

This was the first session in which I really tried to randomize things and play things a bit more sandbox style. I’ve never been very comfortable with doing things that way, but felt like I needed to stretch myself and see where things went.

I created a few different tables, all rolled on 1d6. The tables were (or are, since I’m still using them)…

  • Potential landing sites
  • Animal encounters
  • Alien nemesis encounters
  • Planetary features of interest

I had the players roll to determine which possible landing sites they found, and I used the others to create the story. Pretty much the way one would use some of the tables in the Little Black Books, but I’m not fast enough with those and it would take too long.

One benefit of doing things this way (for me) is that I feel less like I’m railroading the players. It also tests my ability to think on my feet, which I’m not super happy with. I need practice. I made a few mistakes I’m going to correct in the next session. Yet another benefit of short sessions — this one was two hours. Beside fixing things I’ve messed up, since this was a short session the actions of the players and the way things developed have given me some ideas for the next game. So cool.

Challenges .  In this case, the party decided that several player characters would stay at the ship while the rest went off exploring. This is fine, but it isn’t easy to engage players that are simply at the ship doing Jump drive maintenance.  So I had to come up with some things to get them engaged. Not easy. However, I think the exploration party is in a big enough mess now that the characters at the ship are going to need to help out.

I don’t know what the PCs are going to do in the next session. They could do anything. But in this game their actions helped me figure out a few things about this planet,  so I think I can have plenty of ways to react no matter what they decide. What I need to do is plan a couple of jumps ahead. For all I know they may decide to take off and risk a no-maintenance jump just to get out of this system. So I need to be prepared.

 

Into the Void Ref’s Notes 16

Well, after talking about the challenge of running five PCs rather than four, we added a sixth PC this game. A close friend of mine, who I’ve wanted in the campaign for a long time joined. He lives out of state, so going to Roll20 simplified this whole thing a lot as far as getting him involved.

I have come to pride myself on adding PCs to the game in creative ways. Or at least not just going “you meet this guy” and expecting the rest to invite him in. That isn’t really logical from an in-game perspective. It’s easy, but not graceful. So after the last session, in which the PCs got somewhat on the bad side of some dubious characters they’ve had dealings with, I realized I could use the new guy’s Streetwise skill to have him step in and help them in a late-night ambush by some thugs. That would 1)demonstrate his goodwill toward the team and 2)demonstrate some competence, and 3)give him a chance to meet the team on a positive note and give them his credentials. We didn’t do a massive roleplay of that first interaction, but it was sufficient to make things fall into place in a logical way. I feel that as the Ref, I need to provide some rationale for things like this to happen, and the players need to sometimes throw me a bone and go with the flow so everyone can have a good time. And my players do this, so I’m lucky.

It was fun to use the Whisper function in Roll20’s chat to communicate with the new guy on the sly, so he could be doing things while the others were doing their thing, and everything could be a surprise.

Once the fighting was over, the team took off in their ship for an expedition into unknown space. This was a good chance for the players with relevant skills to actually use those skills. Navigation became important, especially going into the unknown, so it was nice that the new PC rolled up Nav-2. They now have a good navigator, and two people on the team with Nav, so there’s a backup. The ship has been outfitted with new Scout-class scanning gear, so during the 3 week/2 jump trip to their first destination I had them make some computer rolls to search for useful gas giants. I let the one guy with Comp-1 make his skill roll, and then they could use his +1 when doing scanning rolls. The problem of navigating unknown space, and not wanting to be stranded with no source of fuel within a lifetime’s journey, is a real problem they had to contend with.  I knew I wanted them to have to think through this, but what I didn’t expect was that, in retrospect, it was a nice counterbalance to the typical RPG violence we started the game with. It also served to emphasize that yes, this is a science fiction space game, with the associated challenges.

I need to write up a standard process for scanning a parsec for gas giants, as I was coming up with that process on the fly. It worked OK, but I’d like to make sure it is fair and logical.

Toward the end of the session, when the ship went into combat with some unknown aggressive ships or probes, I ran that very cinematically, the battle happening in the ring system of an earthlike planet. We did some laser shots, the pilot’s skill and the one of the other guy’s tactical skill came into play, gunnery skill was in use, so most of the players were engaged somehow. I didn’t worry about the vector movement rules. I just rolled on the hit location chart when they shot the bad guys and applied some fairly cinematic results that were more or less consistent with the charts. A hit on the enemy’s maneuver drive resulted in that craft’s inability to change direction, and a couple of them went careening into large rocks in the planet’s rings.  I think that adding those kinds of details is important, and makes the game a lot more fun for everyone to visualize.

After the game, even though everyone had fun, I was a bit put off by the initial fight. I don’t want this campaign to just devolve into fighting and violence. We really don’t need that. While the fight served its purpose, and the PCs have certainly not gone all murder-hobo, it did get me to raise my awareness of where things are going and the need to keep being creative with problems and scenarios.

Into the Void Ref’s Notes 15

Well, this was an interesting session for me. I had a conversation with on my players, David, in email after the session. There is nothing private or personal in the email, so I’m going to reproduce it here, as it contains many of my thoughts about the session and our campaign in general.

 I don’t know how much harder it is to run with 5 players., but it sure is fun!  Especially with Jeff Lee purposely trying to throw a monkey wrench into all your plans.  I was initially feeling bad for hogging the show there in the beginning.  When Jeff and William went off in the corners, I didn’t want them to feel like me and Randy were cutting them out.  I didn’t get to use my sword,  but I’m glad the other guys got to do some combat.  Williams sniper position to cover the entire bar was a good move and his one shot really turned the tide on what could have been a very bad situation.  We were expecting something, but the second assassin singer was pretty impressive if it was improvised because the first assassin went down too quickly.

And here’s my response…

Running 5 is a bit harder. I try real hard to give every player a chance to shine in each session. More players makes this harder in short sessions. It’s not like D&D at that game everyone can pretty easily do their thing, in a dungeon crawl. Or Champions, where it is mostly fightly. So it is a lot more challenging at GM.

Another thing I struggle with is not railroading the game. There is a fine line between giving plot hooks and “forcing” the PCs to do stuff. My goal is to have a game with some purpose, but not completely dictate what happens. Related to that is the fact that I want to provide atmosphere, but I don’t want to just narrate the whole thing. So for instance I tried to use the parade to provide some context for the game and the campaign, but didn’t want to just talk for 30 minutes and not let y’all do anything. So I tried to cut it short but still have it be effective.

Really, I thought it went OK yesterday. You and Randy got to do some roleplaying with the whole negotiation and card game thing, William and Jeff got to shoot someone, and Jeff Lee got to tackle the second sniper and act crazy. So everyone, I felt, was engaged. I was really wanting to engage Jeff Lee, and had expected to have him see the first assassin move and he would be the one acted on it, but the PCs were all over the bar. So I adapted since Barney was on the balcony it made sense he would see that. The second assassin  was in fact planned.  2 assassins planned — I just didn’t know which PCs would be in a position to act.  I’ll reveal more about the assassins next game. What y’all didn’t discover was that the dagger was poisoned, and the mic-stand gun shot poison darts. Make an END save or die in 2-6 minutes without medical intervention. So the possibility was there for something real bad to happen. William got off a good shot, which was lucky.

I’m trying to create good NPCs. I always think back in the old days that is something I ignored. Maybe if I’d reffed Traveller it would have been different.

Having those maps is fun. Really useful.

Anyway, my players seem to enjoy this campaign, and I enjoy running it. I think it is the best campaign I’ve ever run, using any system. In a Facebook chat with the other players, I told them they didn’t have to stick to the threads there are obviously my “planned adventures.”  They can do what they want, and I have modular stuff that can be used and woven into the fabric of the campaign. William made the comment that it is the players obligation to engage with the game world. I agree. And it is the GMs obligation to create a rich setting full of possibilities.

Into the Void Ref’s Notes 13

Like most of my Traveller sessions, this one was long in the making. Jeff #2 was joining us, finally. He’s a regular member of our gaming group, who due to other gaming commitments had never been able to make the Traveller game. So I had the challenge of working his PC into the game in an interesting way. I came up with several ideas but didn’t like the flow of most of them. Too much idle time for him. I settled on starting him 56 years in the past, and putting him in cold sleep for the PCs to discover floating in space. This worked out quite well. It was fun, and it surprised everyone involved.

Without going into details (they are in the previous post), the PCs decided to have some modifications done to their ship, so I got them started on an adventure on that same planet while they wait for their ship. Coming up with non-combat challenges is fun, but you really have to work at it. After the game last night I was watching a Netflix documentary series about the astronaut Scott Kelly’s preparation and 1-year stay on the International Space Station. In reality, everything one does in space is difficult and super dangerous. In a science fiction game perhaps EVAs are easier, but they should still be dangerous with little room for error. Which is all to say that having Vac Suit skill can really get the PCs into some entertaining trouble.

I felt like in this game, especially setting them up for the on-planet adventure, there were some spans in which I just telling them what happened a bit too much. This can help move things along, but in the future I’d like to have them roleplay through some of those parts a bit more.

Once they got down into the undersea cavern, I changed things up quite a lot from the plan I had typed out last week. Weird how sometimes better ideas present themselves during play, and the resources you have prepared need to be altered during the course of play.

Regarding the ship mods. The group agreed to just have Jeff K and I work out the modifications and cost outside of the game. This kind of thing can eat up a lot of actual playing time if you let it. They had hoped to upgrade the ships drives, but in Classic Traveller the fuel requirements and volume of the faster drives would leave almost zero cargo space. They opted for reducing the number of cold berths by half and decreasing the extra Jump-2 fuel to only an extra Jump-1, thus gaining some cargo space. I had reasoned that the Type-A Freetrader would not be equipped with the variety and quality of sensors available on a typical Scout ship, and as this is a very exploratory campaign, they agreed to spend some credits for a massive sensor upgrade.

%d bloggers like this: