The third act of Andy Slack's gaming blog

Once the PCs had settled in for the night after the last episode, the Sword of Izim adventure ran pretty much as written. It’s less than five years old, though, so no spoilers. As ever, I’m impressed with Umberto Pignatelli’s ability to structure an adventure so that the PCs follow it without complaining of being railroaded, although there was some grumbling about their prisoner being able to escape his bonds (“We stripped him naked, where was he hiding that knife?!?” “You really don’t want to know.”)

They correctly identified that the big treasure was also the big monster (and had to talk the thief out of doing something rash that would trigger the transformation, but then the PC is Overconfident). I have tweaked the adventure as in this game the Sword will be needed for the end-of-campaign boss fight; the party thinks they might need it but are not yet convinced the risk is worthwhile, so they have carefully concealed it while they research its history.

The abstract dungeon crawl system – tracking tokens to record progress and card draws for interesting encounters – continues to work well, and now they’re used to it, the players like how it avoids spending time on filler content. (In D&D any encounter is useful for level grinding, but in SW, random encounters increase the risk to PCs without giving them any real benefit, so you want to focus on the fights which matter for plot purposes, and ideally combine them with a puzzle or some other challenge.)

The party has finally realised that their non-combatants can help in a fight by using Support and Test rolls; the sage was especially pleased with himself until his insults enraged the Big Bad, who proceeding to hack him nigh unto death with a greatsword.

Max – a Legendary rank Northlander warrior – was almost killed for the second session in a row by a couple of ordinary Extras who rolled an improbable number of raises. Even with four Legendary-rank fighters with magical fire support, the players are cautious about engaging enemies who have better than 3:1 odds against them, and rightly so. (Two of the things I like best about Savage Worlds are that ordinary mooks remain a genuine threat throughout a campaign, and that there are no hit points to track – this last alone makes it unlikely I will change game system again. I’ve also stopped tracking NPC Power Points, because frankly NPCs don’t survive contact with the party long enough to run out of mana.)

The session closed with Our Heroes back in Jalizar having claimed all the rewards in full, plotting their next move. They have decided to deal with the Hooded Boatman’s commission first, then return to Izim’s Peak and loot it in detail.

This is an extremely experienced group, both of players (average 40+ years playing RPGs) and characters (most of them several advances into Legendary), so they chew through something the size of The Sword of Izim (about 50 pages) in a single session, which for us is about 5-6 hours; we will rotate GMs again at the end of the month, so it will be next summer before we run the next batch of B&B sessions, but I expect that batch will complete the campaign – they now know what the Big Bad is, how to find it, and how to kill it, they just haven’t put the pieces together yet.

“A fully fuelled power plant will enable a starship an effectively unlimited number of accelerations (at least 288) if necessary to use the maneuver drive during the trip (as when miniatures combat is used to resolve a ship to ship encounter).” – Traveller, Book 2

Judging by the ideas I post about, I am most interested in the implications of Book 2: Starships; and fuel has been bugging me for years.

It’s easy to calculate the usage for starships; 10% of the hull tonnage for jump fuel, and 10 tons per power plant number for power and manoeuvre drives for two weeks. Notice that in this edition of the rules, power plant number is only indirectly related to ship tonnage, and not at all related to manoeuvre drive capability.

For small craft, fuel is consumed at the rate of 10 kg per G of thrust per ten minute turn, regardless of what kind of small craft, how much mass it has, or how much cargo it carries; non-starships have life-support for 30 days, but the book is explicit that this is driven by air, food, water, and recycling machinery – nothing to do with power or fuel.

So starships have at least 288 turns of fuel regardless of Gs, lifeboats have 500 G-turns of acceleration (500 turns at full burn), ship’s boats 900 (150 turns at full burn), pinnaces 1200 (240 turns), cutters 1500 (375 turns), and shuttles 900 (300 turns). Nobody is going to run out of fuel in combat, which as I’ve calculated earlier is not likely to last more than 45 turns for the typical engagement.

Small craft are unable to land on worlds of size 8+, and most ships have 1G drives so arguably can’t lift off from worlds of size 9+, but I’ve ignored that for over 40 years and I’m not going to start worrying about it now.

No, what bugs me about all this are the implications for the interstellar society’s technology.

Jump Drives

All we know about these is that they consume vast amounts of hydrogen and don’t work reliably within 100 diameters of a planet. Since in the 1977 edition all worlds have the same density, this is tantamount to saying they don’t work reliably if local gravity is more than a certain value – a theme the authors would return to in 2300AD.

(In my Traveller universe, this was due to the Lens-Thirring Effect or gravimetric frame-dragging disturbing the jump field as it formed, but nobody cared, not even the players who were actual physicists.)

If you’re interested, the drives operate reliably once local gravity drops below about one five-thousandth of a G, an acceleration of roughly 0.2 millimetres per second squared.

The rules imply that ships make a zero-zero intercept with the 100 diameter limit and thus are at rest when they jump. Since the destination system will have a different proper motion in the galaxy than the starting point, this can’t be to set the correct velocity for the target system, so my working assumption is that the jump drive is also very sensitive to ship movement.

Manoeuver Drives

Manoeuvre drives consume the same amount of fuel regardless of the mass of the thing they are accelerating, and the amount of fuel consumed is directly related to the acceleration.

In metagame terms, this is so that you don’t have to solve Tsiolkovsky’s rocket equation in your head every time you change course, and a good thing too.

In game terms, this simplification has certain implications for the setting. If the fuel were being used as rocket fuel, as the 1979 edition of Book 5 suggests, then since the mass flow rate and the standard acceleration due to gravity are the same, the fuel’s specific impulse must change from moment to moment according to the mass of the ship. I can’t imagine how that could work, so I assume that M-drives are some sort of reactionless anti-gravity propulsion, in effect banks of air/raft grav modules, which is more in line with the 1980 edition of Book 5.

One implication of that is that air/rafts have interplanetary capability, although the open top means you’re spending a long time in a vacc suit on that trip. Do what I do and take some Fast Drug with you.

(As an aside, IMTU manoeuvre drives have vectored thrust; the thrust axis is parallel to the deck in atmosphere, and perpendicular to it in vacuum. So popular deck plans are still usable regardless of grav plates, and there is no need to redraw them as tail-sitters.)

I am going to steer well clear of inertialless drives, as they would mean a ship running into something bounces off it like a balloon; although that would explain why nobody in the game universe worries about free traders ramming the planetary surface at 90 kilometres per second, it does make you wonder how ship weapons would work, and what happens if you fly into the solar wind.

But, if the drives are reactionless, why does fuel consumption increase with acceleration but not with mass? And why can’t ship’s boats lift off a size 8 planet although they have 6G of acceleration?

Power Plants

Even the smallest power plant consumes five tons of hydrogen per week; the density of liquid hydrogen is 70.8 kg per cubic metre, which is where Traveller’s 14 cubic metres per displacement ton comes from; five tons of liquid hydrogen occupies 70 cubic metres.

Apart from a brief flirtation with black holes in the late 1970s, I’ve assumed power plants are fusion units. (Why no more black holes? Orbital disturbances on the destinations, and the question of how you stop them orbiting each other when you have several ships close together.)

Current fusion power designs suggest a one gigawatt reactor would need about 5 kg per week of mixed deuterium and lithium, so even allowing for hydrogen fuel being less efficient, starship power plants are in the terawatt range – a terawatt is 500 times the maximum power generated by the Hoover Dam or by the Almaraz nuclear power plant in Spain, which is the biggest one currently active; 2,000 times the output of the fission reactors which operate large nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. To put that in perspective, a terawatt is enough to run all of China and most of the USA at the same time; if this line of reasoning is correct, a free trader’s power plant would generate enough power to run a sizeable fraction of contemporary Earth. (So maybe the frontier worlds are littered with obsolete ships hooked into the power grid? Another scenario for the PCs – “Look, you’ve got a ship’s engineer, right? If this blackout goes on much longer the mayor will have my ass!”)

What are they doing with all that power? And how are they dumping the waste heat?

We have no idea what the power consumption of the various ship components are, but it’s reasonable to assume that ships wouldn’t generate that much power unless they had to; otherwise they would have more expensive power plants than they need. It’s unlikely that life-support, avionics and so on need much more power than they do on contemporary nuclear submarines, so it’s probably needed for the jump and manoeuvre drives; the rules state that the power plant has to at least match the jump drive, while in 1977 there is no connection with the manoeuvre drive (and small craft don’t even have power plants), so we can infer that almost all that power is necessary to initiate or maintain jump, and the power plant is idling most of the time.

When the power plant spools up to power the jump drive, I would expect it to get really hot, really fast, so I suspect a lot of the shielding around the drive compartment referred to in the rules is against heat (and possibly magnetic fields) rather than anything more exotic. Even so, with nowhere to dump the waste heat, I’d guess we’re looking at a sudden multi-terajoule spike to initiate jump rather than a steady one terawatt drain to keep it running; Almaraz Nuclear Power Plant has a reservoir and a river to keep it cool, and unless jumpspace is very cold and full of some sort of conducting fluid, there’s nowhere for the heat to go aboard ship. Radiation is the only option and the least effective way to transfer heat, and if the ship’s skin is radiating any significant fraction of a terawatt of waste heat it’s going to be a bit warm in the passenger staterooms.

This is probably why the back end of the ship glows blue-white; nothing to do with the manoeuvre drive, it’s frantically trying to radiate gigawatts of heat without melting the main compartment or blinding the people looking out of the front end.

If so, one has to wonder what that does to the weather near the starport, and insurance premiums for ground crews.

Coda

My head hurts now, and I already know none of my players care. So I’m going to ignore this and hope it goes away, but there are a few things that will probably creep into the setting for me now – just as an author can invest great effort in working out background material which is only implied in the finished novel, so I spend a lot of time thinking stuff through which only appears as casual throw-away comments in game. For this exercise:

  • You must have zero velocity relative to your planet of origin at jump, and local gravity must be very small. This explains both the 100 diameter limit and the deceleration to zero on arrival there.
  • The shielding around the engine compartment is to protect you from heat and magnetic fields, nothing more exotic. It’s safe to enter unless you’ve just initiated a jump, in which case it’s hot enough to need vacc suits or similar protective gear.
  • Somewhere in the campaign is a colony world using a crashed free trader as a power plant for its main city. Heartless PCs could of course repair it and make off with it, leaving the colony in the dark; more heroic ones could thwart such a plan by a band of ruffians.

Of the various jobs available to them, the party decided they would get out of town for a while and collect the bounty on the bandit lord Gouras Ghan; they spent a great deal of time finding out how caravans work, who operated them on which routes, what they carried and how frequently, while also talking to innkeepers, ostlers, caravaneers and survivors of previous attacks to get a feel for the bandits’ strategy and tactics.

“We need to follow a caravan we’d want to loot,” explained Ghost to the others, “Because if it’s attractive to us, it will be attractive to the bandits.”

They began by travelling through the Hollow Hills and on towards the ruined city of Talum, following the most recent caravan but a day behind, reusing the caravan’s campsites. The plan here was to be close to the caravan when it was attacked, but without being so close they would have to get involved in the fighting. (“We’re not being paid to protect the caravan,” Ghost explained.)

Arriving at Talum, they discovered the caravan they were following had vanished, and the market square (where caravans stop to take on water from the wells) suspiciously clean, as if it had been washed recently. They immediately decided that some sort of tentacled Cthulhoid monstrosity was living in the well, and using its powers of mental domination to force the caravaneers to dismantle and dispose of their wagons and animals before committing suicide; so carefully staying just beyond the circle of cleanliness, they laid bait (dead rats provided by Max and his new sidekick Magrat the Shaman) and settled down to wait for darkness.

Sure enough, assorted lumps of Dread Star Matter (the B&B equivalent of D&D slimes and gelatinous cubes) emerged from nearby buildings and consumed the bait. U’wahz the Sage explained what he knew of these things, and the party headed back towards Jalizar (“We’re not being paid to clean out Talum,” Zosimus explained.)

On arrival, they sold this information to the main merchant houses, caught up with their buddy the pirate captain Anaya the Swift, and learned that Ocrolas the Sage had been used as a scapegoat for the current famine and kicked out of town. U’wahz felt he should offer a fellow Sage succour, so they went into the Charred Bogs looking for him, where they beat off a giant Bog lizard fairly easily and encountered the Hooded Boatman, who bargained with them for their services.

“There’s something in Jalizar I want,” he said. “I can’t get in because of certain magical wards, but you could.” He described the gem he wanted and where it could be found, then said “Value for value,” and asked what the party wanted in return.

It was a lot like the ending of the movie Sneakers. U’wahz wanted a rare book, Ash the thief wanted a new pair of boots that didn’t squeak, Max the barbarian wanted an amulet to protect him against the puppet power, Ghost wanted an all-expenses-paid week in a high-class brothel, and Zosimus said “No thanks, I’m fine,” because he is not comfortable accepting gifts from a sorcerer. Dorjee’s player couldn’t make it, so we don’t know what the Lotusmaster wants.

They didn’t find Ocrolas, but the Hooded Boatman did mention he and the Sage had made a deal, so they assume (incorrectly) that Ocrolas is dead.

And this is where the story really starts… heading west along the caravan route to Faberterra, again following a day behind a caravan, they discovered wrecked wagons, dead bodies, and a couple of survivors who confirmed Gouras was responsible. With remarkably little in the way of problems, they tracked the bandits to their lair and staked it out.

Shortly, Gouras led a pack horse laden with loot from the camp on his own, and his second in command took a small group of bandits with the caravan’s horses, presumably to sell them in the nearest town. The party followed Gouras, except for Ash, who is now a world-class horseman and went out on a long flanking manoeuvre to get in front of Gouras. The bandit noticed the group, and a furious chase began, somewhat marred by half the party falling off their horses (Ash is the only one with any riding skill at all). Ash managed to ambush the fleeing bandit and shot his horse out from under him, allowing the pedestrians to catch up.

Gouras gave up a secret treasure stash in exchange for his life and freedom, which the party agreed to once they’d established that his stash was worth more than the bounty on his head. (“After all,” Zosimus mused, “We don’t have to keep our promises, and even if we decide to, we haven’t promised not to come back and hunt him down again.”)

Leaving Dorjee to stand guard over a well-trussed Gouras, the rest of the group returned to the bandit camp to rescue Yvanna, a merchant’s daughter known to be a prisoner there. Ash, dressed as Gouras and riding Gouras’ horse, beckoned the lookout to him and distracted him while Ghost stabbed him to death from behind. Ash then moved on to the camp, which he noticed was suspiciously devoid of bandits, picked up the girl and left.

Deducing (correctly) that Gouras’ second-in-command, Talik, was looking for Gouras’ stash and an impromptu promotion, they returned to the stash site – an ancient hilltop ruin – at speed, where they found Dorjee holding off the bandits using assorted potions with fire trappings, and a bloodbath erupted at the foot of the hill in the gathering dusk. A score of bandit Extras against a party of Legendary Rank PCs was never going to end well for the bandits, although Talik did manage to Incapacitate Max before going down.

The session ended with the PCs in control of the battlefield and a handful of surviving bandits routing into the darkness.

To Be Continued…

GM Notes

This session was characterised by a lot of upfront discussion and planning by email, at the end of which I was pretty certain they would head south towards Ekul in search of Gouras Ghan, the bandit lord; so I set up a bit of bandit-hunting south of Jalizar followed by a segue into the published adventure The Sword of Izim (which begins in media res after the party has captured Gouras Ghan).

Naturally, therefore, they decided to explore the ruined city of Talum and the Charred Bogs before heading west along the route to Faberterra, none of which I had prepared. So, in my version of the Dominions, Talum now has a hive entity composed of suspiciously intelligent Dread Star Matter; I used the Hooded Boatman of the Charred Bogs to set up a future adventure (Grains of Death), and redeployed Gouras Ghan to the west of Jalizar rather than the south.

We got there in the end, and they are now about to launch into Part 2 of Sword. Just for the lulz I have added a rune of a giant tentacled fish to depictions of the sword, setting them up to deal with the Jamhans in a few adventures’ time, which I hope will be a suitably grand climax to the campaign; the game started off as a selection of unconnected picaresque scenarios, but the group wasn’t happy with that so I’ve retrofitted a story arc since they moved to Jalizar.

I am now starting to pivot from Savage Worlds Deluxe to Savage Worlds Adventure Edition, so the combats were run under SWADE. That worked well; although the rules look as if they have changed significantly, they haven’t really, for the most part they’re just reworded and restructured. Talik was rolling really well, at one point inflicting 39 damage on Max, who went into Incap immediately and almost died from bleeding out – what’s interesting is that while everyone knows logically it’s just the luck of the dice, in such cases the party always behaves as if the NPC concerned will do it again on his next attack and focus their attention exclusively on him, even if there is another identical NPC nearby. There’s a certain amount of sense to this I suppose.

The other significant change I’ve made is to drop initiative altogether; all the PCs and their allies act first, in whatever order they like, and then the opposition acts, in whatever order the GM decrees. So far this is a lot faster and easier, without causing any apparent problems – fortunately none of the group has taken any Edges or Hindrances which affect card draws for initiative.

Next time: Into the haunted hilltop ruins. Can you say “dungeon crawl”? I knew you could.

One thing I am toying with at the moment is how best to use Savage Worlds Adventure Edition for solitaire play along the same lines as Solo for Cepheus Engine. That deserves another post to itself, probably more than one, but in essence I think we could use Quick Encounters, Chases, Dramatic Tasks, Interludes and Mass Combat to replace the GM and tabletop combat.

And while I was thinking about that, my attention was drawn to The Scheme Pyramid by Wine and Savages, 8 page PDF, price $2 at time of writing, which does pretty much the same thing, so I picked it up to see if it could save me some work…

Now of that 8 pages, three are covers and credits, and two are an extended example, so there are only three pages of actual rules. That’s not a complaint – I spend more than two bucks on coffee most days – but it does mean that if I go into much detail I will give you the rules, and that would be discourteous. So I will limit myself to generalities.

The product is aimed at one-offs, convention games, and groups that can only meet on an irregular basis, and its intention is to ensure that you have enough time for the big climactic scene by collapsing the rest of the session into a montage of the kind you would see in a heist movie or spy thriller.

The GM deals a spread of cards into a triangle (the ‘pyramid’), one per PC or allied Wild Card on the bottom row, and fewer for higher tiers, culminating in a single card. Each card represents a task which must be completed, or an enemy who must be defeated, depending on the suit and whether it’s a face card or not; the higher the tier, the harder it is to do so. Successes and raises add bennies into a team pool, while failures mean play moves forward, but at some sort of narrative cost, and adding bennies to the GM’s pool (which might represent, say, the enemy learning something about the team from their slip-up which gives them an edge in a later encounter).

Each card in the pyramid is a challenge for one of the PCs, with the player providing narrative of what they’re doing and which skill is relevant; this means as the team moves up the pyramid, more and more characters shift into support roles, with the PC who has the best chance of success taking point. Once you’ve completed the top tier, you shift back into normal play for the grand finale.

I will probably not use this with my regular face-to-face group, as we have biweekly sessions that are 5-6 hours long and campaigns that run for years on end, giving us the luxury of taking our time over every scene. However, I think it’s worth trying out next time I play Savage Worlds solitaire, and it’s also got potential as an adventure design aid – as a GM, I could set up a scheme pyramid as a kind of flowchart for a scenario giving me hints on what tasks and enemies the group will face in play, and in which sequence. By changing the pyramid to a square, or a more complex figure such as a Tarot layout, I could use it for random dungeon crawls. Lots of possibilities here.

More of that when I have need of it.

“Unfortunately, it seems that the more accurate you make it, the less interesting it becomes.” – Winchell Chung, Introduction to Space Warfare

In this post, I’ll consider pirate tactics, and why I don’t pay them any attention. Some of this applies to space combat in general.

What We Know

Most pirate vessels are Type S scouts or Type C cruisers, and therefore have a sensor range of 2000″. Note that nothing in the rules says these are active sensors, so those ranges apply even if the ships are powered down. Their prey, being civilian vessels, have a sensor range of 500″, as do pirate yachts.

It seems reasonable to me that naval or scout bases would also have 2000″ sensor range, and starports with neither kind of base would have a 500″ sensor range; but even if they don’t, say because their tech level is too low to build radar, there are ships grounded there – or in orbit nearby – which do.

Ships running silent can’t be detected at over 100″, and those running silent in orbit can’t be detected at over 10″. Hiding behind a world or star makes you invisible, but it also makes your prey invisible to you.

What We Suspect

The prey can be assumed to be travelling to or from a zero-zero intercept with the 100 diameter limit, either because they have just arrived and need to land and refuel, or because they’re about to leave.

So, by comparing the time taken for that intercept with the time for the pirate to do a zero-zero intercept from 500″ and 2000″, with both ships using various different accelerations, we can see whether pirates can intercept successfully and how long they have to loot the prey when they do. This is only a rough estimate, mind; accurate calculations have a number of other variables and require the two ships to match acceleration at some point, and they’re more work than I want to get into in a blog post. But, it’s an edge case that lets us see the art of the possible, in big handfuls.

Pirates are interested in 1G ships – types A, R, and M are carrying cargo and passengers, and type Y might have someone worth ransoming. 2G ships (scouts) are easy targets but usually don’t have anything worth stealing. 3G ships are cruisers, and are either navy patrols or other pirates, so best avoided.

What the Numbers Tell Us

All you need to figure all this out is the formula at the front of Book 2 and some patience – a calculator is helpful, a spreadsheet more so – and this is what it tells you.

Starting 2000″ Out

A craft with a 6G drive can beat a 1G ship to the surface of a world with size 4+, and a 4G craft can beat a 1G ship to the ground if world size is 6+. In each case they have at least 4 turns advantage which could be used for looting.

Starting 500″ Out

A craft with a 6G drive can beat any ship with a 1G drive to the surface of any world of size 1 or bigger by at least 2 turns, and a craft with a 4G drive can beat any 1G ship to the surface of a world with size 2+ by at least 6 turns.

Starting from Silent Running

If you’re powered down in orbit, you can beat anyone to the surface; if you’re just powered down, you can beat a 1G craft to the surface if the world has size 2+. Either way you have at least 8 turns to loot them after the interception.

How did you get there undetected? If you’re hunting subsidised merchants, which have a known route, you could be on a hyperbolic orbit that just happens to be in roughly the right place at roughly the right time, and that trick might work if you know in advance when the ship is leaving – say because you have an inside man at the starport.

If you’re a superb navigator you might line up your ship just right to enter orbit and coast in from over 2000″ away, but if anyone does see that it will look awfully suspicious.

You could ride in behind a meteor, as in Poul Anderson’s novel The Star Fox, but how often will there be one on a usable orbit?

What It Means

Pirates hoping to loot a ship will lurk just over 500″ from the surface if they think there are no military vessels on hand, and just over 2000″ if they think there are. What the navy patrols actually do, then, is force pirates to move further away from the starport, giving merchants a better chance of landing safely.

Pirates will use their pinnaces or ship’s boat to engage targets when they can; these can close faster due to their higher acceleration, and therefore have more time to loot their prey, and are also (frankly) more expendable than the main ship.

Pirates want their targets to stop accelerating, because it makes interception easier and gives them more time to loot. The targets are only going to agree to that if they think they have a good chance of surviving with their persons and their ship intact, and if they also think there is no-one around to help them.

Coda

Calculate an intercept course? Seriously, folks, for the average roleplaying session you’ll do just as well asking the GM to tell you how many turns the fight is going to last (as per the optional rules for space combat in Book 2).

You could spend a lot of time working out the details, but you need quite a few assumptions about initial orbits to do it right; and how much more fun will the table have as a result?

My recommendations:

  • If your players encounter a pirate, roll a reaction test to see if it attacks them; this represents whether it is in a suitable orbit to engage the players, as well as whether it’s in the mood – it might be lying low, it might have just looted someone else, it might be waiting for better prey – you get the idea.
  • If the players’ ship does get into a fight, the enemy is in range for 6D turns.
  • If the pirates’ prey is successfully boarded, they have 1D turns to loot before the navy arrives, or they fly into a planet, or retrieving their men becomes too complicated.

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” – Roald Dahl

Outbound from Mertactor, 007-1105

Encounter: 2D+4 = 13, subsidised merchant. Reaction 2D = 6, non-committal.

The day drifting out to the 100 diameter limit is uneventful, but Arion is busy preparing the ship for jump and calculating their course, so there is no time to chat with his passenger. Communication with other vessels is limited to a brief exchange of pleasantries with an outgoing fat trader bound for Mille Falcs.

Jumpspace, 008-1105

“All right,” says Arion while they are seated at the table in the crew lounge. “Spill it.”

“Spill what?”

“You’re dressed like a Mertactor peasant, but I’ve been watching you and you know your way around a ship too well to be one. You’re at a good starport with a scout base, but you’re being chased across the pad complex by six guys with knives. You know how to handle a knife as well as I do, which admittedly isn’t saying much. There’s a story there somewhere, and I’d like to hear it,” he finishes, not unkindly.

Coriander does that funny squinty thing she does whenever he asks her a question with any depth to it, and considers what to say.

“Scouts are nosy, huh?”

“Recruited and trained for it. But hey, just because I’ve asked a question doesn’t mean you have to answer it.”

Remember I’m using encounter 36 from 76 Patrons as a basis for the ‘commission’ Coriander has engaged Arion to carry out.

Coriander sighs. “Okay. I was crewing on a merchantman, got into an argument with the captain and quit. It happens, you know?” Arion nods; he does know. It does happen.

“So I’m on Mertactor with a duffel bag and not much else, looking for a ride home, and the captain turns up dead in an alley. The next thing I know there’s wanted posters up around the starport and a bounty on my head.” Arion nods again; like a number of frontier worlds, Mertactor’s rulers find issuing bounties to be more cost-effective than maintaining a full-time police force. He didn’t see any wanted posters, but maybe the bounty hunters took them down to minimise competition. That sparks a thought.

“Must be a big bounty to draw in six co-operating bounty hunters.”

“You overestimate the value of human life; a few hundred is more than enough.”

There’s a pause while Arion digests this. Coriander goes on.

“You haven’t asked if I did it. You must be wondering that.”

“Oh, sure. But what answer are you going to give? You’d probably say you didn’t kill the guy either way, right?”

“Aren’t you worried I’ll try to kill you?”

“Not really. I don’t think you can fly the ship, so I’m safe while we’re in jumpspace, you need me to land.”

“That’s… not what I expected.”

“I try to keep things interesting. Plus, you don’t look like a murderer to me. Maybe you didn’t do it. Maybe you did and there was a good reason for it, maybe even a legal reason. I figure we’ve got at least three weeks to Collace, you’ll tell me when you’re ready.”

“Where are we heading? Talos?”

“Yes, actually; Talos then Collace.”

“Easier to refuel at Talos.”

“Yeah, just run a hose into the ocean and purify what passes for water there. I don’t want to ram a gas giant for fuel if I don’t have to; hypersonic wind shear can ruin your whole day, and the area ruling on these things is terrible, you get a lot of fore and aft buffeting at transsonic speeds.” She nods.

“See,” he grins, “You understood all that. You were never a peasant. Now, sitting around your stateroom for a week is going to get really boring, really fast; since you’re crew, you want to help me with some maintenance? I think there are some spare coveralls in stateroom three.”

Inbound to Talos, 014-1105

Encounter: 2D-2 = 10, free trader; reaction 2D = 6, non-committal.

Arriving at Talos, Arion and Coriander find themselves sharing their airspace with a black-painted free trader, which studiously ignores them as it heads for what passes for a starport locally; a patch of bedrock with a pressurised hut that looks as if it has been there for centuries, and quite possibly has.

“How much money do you have left?” Coriander asks, thoughtfully.

“A bit over thirty thousand. It’ll get us to Collace.”

“I have some too… Tell you what; let’s split up. I’ll look for a cargo, I was broker aboard on my last ship, and you look around for work, maybe we can pick up a charter.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

Character Updates

Like 5150, characters in Classic Traveller are simple enough to list here, which is convenient for me as it means I don’t have to keep separate records. Mind you, this is Traveller, so don’t expect much in the way of actual updates, apart from their bank balances going steadily downhill.

Arion: 797787. Scout 3 terms. Auto Pistol-1, Mechanical-1, Pilot-3. Cr 32K, Scoutship.

Coriander: 77778A-5. Merchant 2 terms, 4th Officer. Admin-3, Streetwise-1; Awareness-5, Special, Telepathy-4. Cr 51,000.

GM Notes

Look at that, I’m back in the present tense again.

For a while in the 1970s I toyed with the idea that no time at all passed in jumpspace, so that ship crews gradually fell out of synchronisation with the rest of the universe; but if that were true, you wouldn’t need staterooms, so I dropped that approach quickly.

I decided to start tracking funds as they left Mertactor, so Arion is down Cr 8,000 for life support; I figure crews get charged in advance because there is no way of knowing whether, or indeed if, they will be back. No-one has ever asked me how banking works in Traveller, so I just assume that with millions of sophonts working on that problem for thousands of years, someone came up with an answer that doesn’t intrude on play – probably some variation on letters of credit.

“Ship encounters may be made an easily included part of adventures by abbreviating the movement requirements. In essence, when an encounter occurs, shots (if they occur) are traded without regard to range initially. When one vessel elects to flee, the referee then states that a certain number of shots may be made before the ship is out of range.” – Traveller, Book 2

From the beginning, Traveller offered a range of options for space combat. Although most of the combat rules were geared towards models on a tabletop – unusual considering that personal combat is largely abstracted – you could play on graph paper or using the abbreviated movement rules above.

I tried all of them at various times, and spent a lot of time calculating intercept courses and times for typical engagements which in hindsight would have been better spent on my college coursework; but the abbreviated movement rules work fine for the average roleplaying session, so why use anything more complex? Unless you have a 170 foot table or a seven foot piece of millimetre graph paper, you won’t fit most of the ranges in anyway – short laser range goes up to 150″, which is 12′ 6″ on the table or 6″ on the graph paper, so most of the time the only DMs that come into play are those for computer programmes and obscuring sand.

So, in my opinion the abbreviated movement rules are the way to go. (Periodically I think “I should use Savage Worlds because the abstract chase rules work better than this tabletop stuff.” Then I remind myself, “Oh yeah, Traveller already did that.”)

That begs the question, how many turns are combatants in range before the fight ends? My view was that most engagements would involve a craft with 1G acceleration (Types A, M, R, Y) somewhere near the main world of a system, as ship encounters occur when you’re leaving a world or arriving there. Consequently, the limiting factor is when that ship reaches either the surface or the 100 diameter limit, which won’t take more than 45 turns at 1G (time for a zero-zero intercept of something a million miles away, which is the jump limit for a size 10 world).

Anyway, 6D turns seems a reasonable approximation, and to be honest most space combats don’t last that long; a single laser hit has about a 10% chance of crippling your ship, a single missile hit has about an 80% chance, so the odds of surviving 20 turns of shooting from an attacker are not good, even in a Type C, which is the toughest ship in the game.

The weak spots are the power plant and manoeuvre drive, and only the Type C has high enough drive letters that it can take more than one hit there without being immobilised. So unless you’re driving a cruiser, if you’re unarmed you seriously consider surrendering or dumping your cargo and hoping the pirate goes for that instead; and if you’re armed a warning shot should realistically make most pirates think twice about pressing an attack against you.

Usually, PCs are operating a ship with drive letter A, and once that has been hit you’re facing a multi-million Credit bill to replace it, assuming you don’t crash into something or drift off into the Big Dark and asphyxiate.

How much is your cargo worth again?

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