The third act of Andy Slack's gaming blog

In a Nutshell: Exploring Deep Time with the Cepheus Engine (*cough* Traveller *cough*). 98 page PDF from Baggage Books. $4.99 from DriveThruRPG at time of writing.

This is what happens when I go on DriveThruRPG for one specific thing and notice something shiny for $4.99. That’s a couple of cups of coffee. What can I tell you, I’m a sucker for lightweight settings.

Contents

Much of the book is in the form of short briefing lectures given by NPCs; unusually, each such NPC is given a statblock.

Introduction: The premise of the setting is that in a parallel timeline very much like our own, Earth discovered time travel at the very end of the 20th century, as a side effect of figuring out antigravity. Instead of exploring different worlds across space, mankind explores different epochs of time on one planet, Earth itself.

This section also outlines how time travel works from an explorer’s perspective; most importantly, time is quantised so that one can only ‘jump’ through it in integer multiples of roughly 18,900 years – the effect of this in-game is that it removes the need for the referee to worry about the PCs changing events, say by killing Hitler (as is traditional in time travel); they can’t do it. Time travel also requires spacecraft, as you need to be in low Earth orbit to do it. Basically, you’ve got recognisable Travellerish starships, except the jump drive takes you through time, not space. There are stats for a couple of ships, and a deck plan for one class.

Quantum 0 – The Present Day: This discusses the nations, corporations, academic institutions and other bodies actively travelling through time, and their goals in doing so. Any of them could be a patron, a rival, or a source of help. By default, the heroes are from Quantum 0.

The Terminal Empire: This is the main bad guy in the default setting; a slave-owning oligarchy which becomes the world government in AD 20,100. This state also has time travel, and uses it to plant colonies elsewhen in the timestream; so far it has avoided open conflict with Q0, but it has covert agents on contemporary Earth. This section includes brief notes on generating Terminal Empire NPCs, its technology, and what it looks for in a time colony. Notes on a couple of typical NPCs and a typical time colony are provided, along with a colour map of the area near the settlement.

Other Human Civilisations: The setting assumes that humans can’t sustain a technical civilisation for more than one quantum; humanity may survive, but no civilisation lasts long enough to span multiple quanta. This gives room for multiple human societies in the timeline, some descended from the Empire, some from Q0 civilisation. Here you’ll find notes on the Turonians (who walk with dinosaurs), the Aleasak (who have struggled back from the stone age to Tech Level 5 and beaten off an Empire invasion), the Errekano (who were conquered by the Empire), and the Grenusheer (who are a stone age people and just hide in the bushes until the Empire gives up and goes away).

A Timeline of Earth: This is a high-level outline of Earth’s history from 4.4 billion years ago, when it develops a solid surface you can land on, to 1.1 billion years in the future, when there are hostile aliens which have moved the Earth somewhere else, and open fire on anyone who shows up. That gives you 300,000 Earths to visit, of which 80,000 or so are suitable for adventure in being habitable and having some sort of life to interact with.

The things I like most about this chapter are the maps of Earth in each major time period, showing the continents as they were at that point. (You could repurpose these as maps for alien worlds without too much difficulty.)

The chapter also details several non-human sentient races, with character generation modifiers in case you want to play one or build an NPC; the jingyi (mysterious dinosaurs), the tsantirrew (avian mercenaries), the chovu imoi (smart abalone-like gastropods), the dreiyari (giant tardigrades). Again, easy to repurpose as aliens in a more conventional SF game.

Characters: Here are notes on the kind of characters one might play, or encounter; barbarians, medics, nobles, scientists and whatnot. Surprisingly, there are no modifications to the character generation process itself. I suppose it’s not so different from saying “all PCs are from a TL 8 culture, generate them accordingly”.

Bestiary: Here we find a score or so of weird animals that have graced our planet, or might do so in future. Most have stats, most have pictures.

Other Aspects of Time Travel: A miscellany, this. Since you’re always on Earth, the local bacteria can usually eat you, and this chapter begins with a list of diseases you might catch uptime or downtime. Next we find a revised description of the familiar red-amber-green travel zones, and how they are policed by Q0 nations. Finally there is a short section on dealing with PCs that try to interact with themselves, say by leaving a message.

Adventures in Time: This chapter includes six adventure seeds in the familiar 76 Patrons format – a basic situation, followed by six different ways it could develop. This allows the referee to run very similar adventures several times, and protects the plotlines to some extent against players who’ve read the book.

Appendix A – Inverting the Empire: As mentioned above, the default version of the setting has our civilisation – Q0 – as the good guys, and the Empire as the bad guys. With a few tweaks, though, you can reverse this; and the reversed setup is quite convincing, except you have to assume that the 98% of the population who are slaves are happy with that state. I would suggest they have been genetically engineered and socially conditioned to prefer it, as in S M Stirling’s later Draka novels.

Appendix B – Suggested Reading and Resources: What it says on the tin. This is shorter than you might expect, because most time travel stories focus on interacting with events much closer together than the quanta in this setting, and are therefore of limited utility to the Empire of Time referee.

…and we close with the obligatory Open Game Licence.

Format

Colour covers wrapped around single column black text on white, with colour or greyscale illustrations every page or so. Basic, effective, gets the job done.

Conclusions

I’ve often introduced time travel into a Traveller setting, but never really considered making the whole setting about time travel. I have toyed with the idea that jump drive actually takes you across parallel universes (as in Keith Laumer’s Worlds of the Imperium), and every planet is Earth in a different timeline, but never fleshed it out. Empire of Time is, in a way, a merger of those two ideas.

The idea of travel only being viable in large jumps is very clever, in that it allows you to have most of the fun of time travel (“Yay! Dinosaurs!”) without most of the paradoxes (“Sorry grandpa, but you must die – for science!”) and plot circumvention (“Tomorrow I’m going to travel back to yesterday and leave a gun here – oh look here it is!”).

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5. I could see myself running this, although not under the Cepheus Engine. It’d be easy to port to Savage Worlds or any other version of Traveller, though.

This is a slightly updated version of a 2011 post from my previous blog, but I think it fits nicely into the flow of this category.

The assumptions behind the Traveller skills system weren’t clear to me when I refereed the game in the 1970s and 1980s. Only now, after 40 years of gaming, do I think I understand them anywhere near correctly.

RPG rules were combat-heavy in the 1970s, because interpersonal skills were handled by talking to the game master rather than dice rolls. In line with this, early Traveller had a different skill for every personal combat weapon, but much broader skills elsewhere – Admin covered everything from filling in forms correctly to brokering multi-million Credit cargo deals and beyond, but knowing how to use a carbine was no help at all if someone gave you a rifle.

Weapon Expertise

Since the dice really only came out in earnest when the lead started flying, weapon skills were a special case.

Traveller weapon expertise wasn’t really a skill level in the way that we now understand the term. All player characters had expertise 1/2 in all weapons, meaning as a PC you could pick up anything from a club to a laser rifle and use it. (NPCs did not enjoy this privilege, suffering severe penalties if they tried to use a weapon without expertise.) Expertise with a weapon in early Traveller is more like D&D weapon specialisation or the Savage Worlds Trademark Weapon edge; it is a statement about the character’s signature combat style and his favourite tools for the job.

However, compared to the die roll modifiers for range and target armour, the effects of expertise are quite small; the way to take a foe down is to pick the right tool for the job, i.e. the weapon with the best modifier against his armour type; adjust the range band to give yourself the best chance of hitting; and get the drop on the opposition to make use of the “first hit” rule, which means that the first attack on an unaware target effectively does triple damage. All of this emphasises tactics, planning, and ambushes.

This meant that some weapon skills were pretty much useless to the power gamer creating a combat god. Possibly for this reason, players got more choice in selecting a weapon skill than other skills. If the service said you were learning Medical, then that’s what you got. For combat skills, they said you had to learn a gun, but you got to pick which one, supporting the idea that weapon expertise is about signature style. The check on this is Law Level in Book 3; the nastier your weapon, the more likely it is that starport customs and local law enforcement will try to take it away from you.

(It is possible in the 1977 rules to generate a planet with a negative law level. I ruled at the time that this mandated the minimum weaponry your character had to carry, rather than the maximum. “Sorry sir, I can’t let you leave the starport unless you have at least a rifle with you. It’s dangerous out there.” If you think that’s nuts, check out this clip about Svalbard.)

Background Skill Level

The rules assumed that NPCs had expertise level 1 with whatever weapon they were carrying, and were silent on what other skills they might have. Setting aside considerations of Strength, Dexterity, armour and range, the base chances to hit were:

  • No expertise: 13+ on 2d6 or 0% (-5 for lack of expertise, and opponents get +3 to hit them as well – it sucks to be an untrained NPC in this game)
  • Expertise Level 0 (sorry, 1/2), PC default: 8+ or 42%.
  • EL 1, armed NPC default and the minimum an Army/Marine PC starts with: 7+ or 58%.
  • EL 2: 6+ or 72%.
  • EL 3: 5+ or 83%.

For a long time I’ve believed that each successive iteration of the Traveller rules increased both the number of skills a character had, and his expertise level in each skill. Using those supplements with NPC statblocks (1, 4 and 13) it’s relatively easy, if somewhat time-consuming, to check the baseline.

  • Supplement 1, 1001 Characters: Sample of 680 characters (I left out Others since they don’t follow the core rules, and scouts get two skill rolls per term as in the 1981 rules), average number of skills 4.17, average number of expertise levels 6.02, average expertise level 1.44, most likely best expertise level 1.
  • Supplement 4, Citizens of the Imperium: Sample of 480 characters, average number of skills 3.01, average number of expertise levels 4.31, average expertise level 1.43, most likely best expertise level 1.
  • Supplement 13, Veterans: Sample of 212 characters (several dozen are illegible in my copy of the book), average number of skills 7.74, average number of expertise levels 9.90, average expertise level 1.28, most likely best expertise level 2.

So, the average Book 1 character has about 6 expertise levels split over about 4 skills. On average, a Book 4 character has nearly twice as many skills, and 50% more expertise levels in total – so somewhat to my surprise, his average expertise level is slightly lower, but his best expertise level is more likely to be 2 than 1 – note that in Book 5, the average starman is said to have level 2 in his main skill.

Other points that caught my eye:

  • A character has about a 20% chance that his highest expertise level will be 3 (slightly higher under Book 4, but not dramatically so).
  • The chance of a character’s highest skill level being 5 or more is about 1-2% (slightly lower under Book 4).

Characteristics

Something that I can’t remember seeing in published material prior to Adventure 3: Twilight’s Peak is the idea of rolling two dice against a characteristic and succeeding if the score is that characteristic or less – for example, forcing open a door if the roll is Strength or less.

That was handy for things that had no obviously relevant skills, and could have done with being stressed, or at least mentioned, in the rulebook – I understand Marc Miller uses it extensively himself.

I also remember using Strength as a rough guide to a character’s height and weight, so that for example a stolen uniform would fit your PC if the guard’s Strength was within a point or so of your own.

Finally, for a brief period just after Book 4 came out, I used a character’s terms of service to derive expertise levels in certain skills – for example, it seemed to me that Scouts should have Survival skill, but in 1978 they had no way to get that during prior service; so I gave them half their terms of service, rounded down, in Survival – a three term Scout got Survival-1 for free.

Self-Improvement

A key assumption of Traveller was that people do not improve their skills much over time, maybe one expertise level every couple of years. This is explicitly stated in the rules, along with the point that experience and advancement apply to the player not the character – the character becomes more effective over time because the player learns how to make better use of their PC’s characteristics and skills.

This means that in videogame terms, one should view Classic Traveller as a First-Person Shooter, not as a Role-Playing Game. Success comes from familiarity and tactical sense, not from building up your in-game persona; if you want to buff your character, the best way is to get it some cool toys.

Abstraction

Traveller personal combat is abstract, played out in range bands. Tactical movement and cover are subsumed into the evasion rules, and you could play space combat the same way using the abstract movement rules towards the end of Book 2.

More recent games like WFRP3, 5150 and Bulldogs are shifting towards abstract movement zones; as is often the case, Traveller was there first.

Coda

All of this stuff was right in front of me from the very beginning, yet it took me decades to grasp. The lessons I take from this are to play the Rules As Written for any game, strive to understand why they were written as they were, and minimise house ruling.

“In the lands of the North, where the black rocks stand guard against the cold sea, in the dark night that is very long, the men of the Northlands sit by the great log fires, and they tell a tale…” – Noggin the Nog

They tell how a band of heroes looted the Earthenware Pyramid of Gilaska, and thereby offended Etu the Crocodile Goddess. They tell how those heroes rescued a fair maiden from savages in the Borderlands, and how they burned part of the Great Library of Syranthia to destroy a greater evil. They tell of the Spider Queen, and the Serpent Priestess, and how the heroes killed them both, and thus made amends with Etu. They tell how the heroes met an Amazon pirate captain, and helped her steal the Eye of the Night from its fiendish winged guardians. They tell of the Shadows over Ekul, and how the heroes destroyed the Black Monastery, reunited lovers torn apart, and sparked a feud between the Valk and a city-state of southern Ekul that smoulders yet.

I have told you how those heroes traveled north to Jalizar, City of Thieves, and rescued the wife of Lord Crumbal from a fiendish wolf-man, whose lair they battled past giant spiders to despoil. I have told you how they ventured into the Sewers of Jalizar, and what they found there, and how they slew Vetranis the Apothecary and entered the service of the snake sorceress, Jazarah.

Alas, Vetranis was under the protection of the Thieves’ Guild, and it was then that Jutarkos Six-Fingers, Master of the Thieves’ Guild, ordered them to hunt down and slay whoever had killed Vetranis without his permission…

Sending a Message

The Pawns dealt with the initial problem quickly, arranging for small valuables from Vetranis’ house to appear in pawnshops known to be used by the Jan Tong. Ash explained to Jutarkos Six-Fingers that probably neither the body nor proof would ever be found, but it looked like the work of the Tong. While the Guild ordered reprisals against the Tong, Jutarkos had a special mission for the Pawns; they must steal a relic from the Church of the Universal Eye, without the Church realising there had been a theft.

The Church of the Eye

As there was no apparent deadline, the Pawns invested heavily in reconnaissance; the session lasted five hours, and they spent three of those gathering information and making (and discarding) plans; posing as worshippers to case the joint, breaking in after dark to scope the place out, talking with their ally the snake sorceress and so on.

My favourite plan was the one which involved throwing live tortoises from ground level into the Church through a trapdoor on the roof, aiming them precisely so that they would strike ropes inside the building and alert the guards. I wasn’t clear what they thought would happen after that, but full marks for lateral thinking. Sadly, this plan was voted down, and at length they selected a more pedestrian plan, with contingencies, which seemed quite promising; it involved sugar sand, shards of broken glass, using the puppet power on a guard and barrier on the relic in a complex conjuring trick which would spirit the relic out of the building while making it look as if the actual relic had fallen, caught fire, and then shattered as a punishment from the gods for… well, something, the priests probably knew what they’d done wrong even if the party didn’t.

I have never seen so many critical failures in one session; all of their cunning contingency plans failed one after the other due to the caprice of the dice, and in the end they gave up and abseiled into the church from the roof by night, slaughtered the priests while they slept, and made off with the loot, arguing that since all the priests were dead, none of them realised their relic was missing and they had fulfilled the letter of the contract.

That was when the relic’s supernatural guardians activated, chasing the party through the alleys and over the rooftops of Jalizar. I was especially pleased with the way the players interacted with the battlemat to make the chase more interesting; there was a lot of parkour going on, coupled with push attacks to knock their pursuers off roofs. I really ought to use the actual chase rules at some point, but this is a group which works better with concrete ideas such as figures and battlemats than with the abstract concepts of a Savage Worlds chase. Nothing wrong with that.

Disposing of the relic earned them three cryptic visions relating to the overall story arc – yes, there is one of those now, they wanted one – and when they took the relic to the agreed dead letter box and hid to see who turned up, their luck did not improve; the fellow sent to retrieve the relic for the anonymous patron rolled a 25 on Notice and spotted all six of them, shooing five away before engaging the sage in a protracted conversation which is not going to do anybody any good.

And there the session closed.

GM Notes

I had plans for future campaigns, involving The Dracula Dossier and The Pirates of Drinax; but what most of my remaining players actually want to play is Beasts & Barbarians, and frankly there are worse ways to spend a weekend afternoon.

This was one of the short scenarios from Lankhmar – Savage Tales of the Thieves’ Guild, to ease us back into the setting and the rules after an 18 month hiatus, and modified to make it a little harder for the Pawns (who are now mostly Legendary rank) and feed them some clues about the overall story arc. As this group is especially resistant to being railroaded, I offered them a choice of three scenarios and went with the one they picked. Here you see the trick to dealing with Legendary characters; give them a problem which challenges the players’ skills, not the characters’. I also used an unrelated picaresque scenario to nudge them gently towards the main arc, by adding a couple of visions and reskinning some of the NPCs; this gives the illusion that it’s all part of some larger plot that I worked out in advance, but actually what’s going on is I give them a clue in each session, and as they piece them together they will work out what they’re supposed to do.

Of course, they will almost certainly do something different at that point, but so long as we’re all having fun, that doesn’t matter.

Action cards don’t work well for this particular table, so we used the WFRP3 initiative mechanic of agility checks to generate slots which can be freely traded from round to round; that didn’t really work, but the combat was a chase in which it made more sense for the lead character (the one with the loot) to go first and then everyone else to react to him. It’s promising enough to try again, but I can see this group discarding initiative altogether sometime soon.

Review: Outcast

In a Nutshell: Setting for Cepheus Engine (*cough* Traveller *cough*). 94-page PDF by the World Building Consortium, AKA Baggage Books; $4.99 on DriveThruRPG at time of writing.

There have been a lot of Travellerish indie products coming out since the Cepheus Engine was released, and as a long-time Stargate fan, this one caught my eye.

Contents

Introduction: A quick overview of the setting. The premise is that 500 years before the campaign starts, an advanced alien species exiled the few surviving humans to a barren world they had no interest in occupying. Fortunately, this world is connected to a network of portals leading to a myriad other planets. Unfortunately, the good ones are all taken.

Vatan: This is the planet where most humans reside, with a Traveller – sorry, Cepheus Engine – profile of EAA1634-5. It’s a lifeless, barren dump, and consequently the million or so humans left live underground in a complex of caverns. This section describes the planet; the human settlements with their government; the derelict settlements occupied by the last lot of refugees the aliens dumped here, now long dead; and provides both player and referee maps of the planet and one of the cities. The player’s planetary map is largely blank, as most of the planet is unexplored.

The Network: An arrangement of portals – teleporters with interstellar range – which provide instantaneous transport to millions of worlds throughout the Local Group of galaxies. Unusually, in this setting the portal network has been built piecemeal over millions of years by many different species. This section explains how to use the portals, different kinds of portals that might be found, and the Via Vastha, a small chain of human-run hostels at major network nodes.

Since the network is so vast, most travellers rely on “runs”; chains of nodes which lead from a single starting point to a single destination. This is a clever idea, which allows the referee to begin with a small section of the universe, and build on it later as necessary by introducing side branches; in this way it merges the Traveller concept of a star map allowing players to plan their travels, giving them agency, with the Savage Worlds Sci-Fi Companion concept of no star map, giving the GM complete freedom to add or delete worlds as he sees fit. An example run is provided later, in the Anvini Run section.

Near Vatan, human explorers have marked portals with symbols giving clues as to what’s on the other side, and a selection of these is provided for the GM to tantalise players with.

While the more advanced races have FTL starships, humans are rarely allowed to ride on them and never allowed to own them. This is not much of a handicap, as there are so many worlds connected by portals.

Technology: This relies on the Cepheus Engine tech levels which will be familiar to any Traveller player. Human survivors generally operate at TL 3 (early industrial) but have the knowledge up to TL 6; they know how to make internal combustion engines, but don’t do so, because they have no fuel, and live in a sealed environment with a limited air supply. Odd items acquired from exploration or more advanced races range up to TL 16. There’s an interesting section on setting-specific gear, largely things you could make with TL 3 tools and TL 6 knowledge – so for example you can have a vacc suit, but somebody has to make it entirely by hand.

Characters: This begins by explaining the culture of the human survivors, which began as a mixture of South Asian and Chinese lifestyles reconstructed from memory by traumatised survivors of Earth and its Mars colony. It then explains “classes” – really, jobs your character might specialise in – before working through additions and changes to the basic Cepheus Engine rules; Social Standing, some skills, and material benefits are different.

Alien Species: Races in the setting are divided into three groups.

  • Imperial Races are highly advanced and prone to displacing other races from their homeworlds; there is one of these per life-supporting environment type, and they tend to displace life-forms which are damaging their own biospheres. Five examples of these are provided, with a sidebar noting another environment type which should have its own Imperial Race, but apparently doesn’t.
  • Outcast Races, the ones who get displaced; these include humans. Five examples of these are provided, including the Agents, malformed humanoids grown from human DNA as liaisons between Imperials and humans.
  • Vestal Races; uncontacted or newly contacted races who haven’t been displaced yet, usually because they are too primitive to cause any ecological damage. No examples of these are provided, but there are said to be hundreds of them.

Random Worlds: The world generation rules have been modified from the core Cepheus/Traveller approach, in two main ways; first, a number of tables are based on 3d6 rather than 2d6, and second, the characteristics generated are different. World size is about habitable volume rather than diameter; other characteristics are atmosphere, gravity, temperature, radiation, lighting conditions, inhabitants (close to population level in the core rules, but a little different), resources, connectivity (how many portal connections it has, and how far apart they are).

Since one can generate a world which is more hospitable than Vatan, any such planet has something wrong with it, or humans would have moved there; only two options are provided, but it’s not hard to come up with more.

The Anvini Run: Here’s an example run, nine intermediate nodes leading to a trading nexus called Port Null, and an eleventh node which is a dead end. The nodes are described two or three to a page, and give both examples and places to visit if you just want to jump in and play.

Other Adventures: About 20 example adventure seeds falling into what the author considers the main categories for the setting; missions to Earth to retrieve museum pieces, documents, seeds and whatnot; looking for resources at other nodes, or exploiting ones that have already been found; pure exploration; treasure hunting; colonisation; criminal investigations. You can probably get an evening session out of each of these, which would make a short campaign possible using nothing but this book and the Cepheus Engine itself.

The Local Group: A map of the Local Group of galaxies, and short descriptions of nine or so of them. This is an appendix that I don’t think would see much use in play.

…and we conclude with the obligatory Open Game License.

Format

Colour cover, single-column black text on white with occasional greyscale illustrations; simple, effective, gets the job done without hogging your device memory.

Conclusions

Actually, I can see myself using this at some point; I wouldn’t use Cepheus Engine personally, but this book should work with any 2d6-based version of Traveller and would be very easy to Savage.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5.

This is a slightly revised version of a 2013 post from my previous blog, which I think fits nicely in this category…

The thing about character generation in the 1977 edition of Classic Traveller is this: It’s the end game.

Fresh out of character generation, the typical Player Character is in his late 30s or early 40s. He’s the same age as Conan was when he seized the throne of Aquilonia. He’s done the spacefaring equivalent of all that dungeon-crawling crap, served his time in the trenches, and now he is ready to concoct “daring schemes for the acquisition of wealth and power”, as Book 3 put it.

Comparing weapon skills statistically to the other game we all played at the time, Original D&D, we see that against an unarmoured target at optimum range, the hit probability for expertise level 1-2 (which covers most characters) is roughly equivalent to a D&D fighter of 4th to 6th level. Expertise level 3 is about the same as a 7th to 9th level fighter, level 4 to 10th-12th level, and level 5 to 13th-15th level.

9th level for an OD&D fighter (Traveller expertise level 3) is when he builds his castle and starts playing the Game of Thrones. In this regard, early Traveller is more like contemporary FATE-based games like Spirit of the Century or Diaspora, in which the PC begins the game as good as he will ever be as far as skills go, and improves in other ways – power, wealth, influence.

Examples

Conan is about 4th level (“he had already taken wounds which would have killed any three normal men”), so would have Sword-1. Given his Strength of 12 (at least), he’d get another +1. Against an unarmoured opponent at optimum range, he hits on a 2; that’s every single time. He’d hit a stock NPC with Sword-1 and Mesh (“the mailed chief of Akif”) on a 6, 72% of the time; untrained NPCs (-5 to hit and +3 to be hit) are as grass before his blade, he can carry on hitting them every time, indefinitely, even when he’s fatigued and they’re evading.

A character with Dexterity 8 and a telescopic sight already has +3 to hit at very long range (over 500 metres). He only needs to roll an 8 to hit an unarmoured target, so expertise level 3 or better guarantees a hit every time – there are no automatic failures in early Traveller. If the target is in Cloth armour, that drops to hitting on a 4+, or a mere 92% of the time. Note that with 3D damage and the first shot rule, if he hits the average NPC, they are incapacitated, no ifs, ands or buts. There’s your world class sniper, right there, and interestingly he corresponds to the 7th level D&D fighter I’d use as a template for Olympic-level archers in that game.

So, in the 1977 flavour of Classic Traveller, expertise-1 is Conan, and expertise-3 is more like Jason Bourne.

I wish I’d understood that at the time, and been able to convey it to my players through exciting descriptions. Oh well.

And so the test drive for 5150: No Limits – Maiden Voyage draws to a close, and as usual I reflect on how it went. I’ll start by saying that Ed Teixeira’s responses to my dumb questions have been as fast and friendly as ever.

Like all Two Hour Wargames products, it’s hard to fault it for the effortless way it generates emergent setting information and storylines. It’s fast, simple and engaging, and it’s a definite improvement on its predecessor, 5150 Fringe Space, in terms of ease of use and clarity.

Increasing Rep seems quite a bit easier than in previous THW games; this far into a campaign, I’m usually losing Rep hand over fist.

Removing the need for figures and tabletop combat entirely does speed things up and simplify them considerably; I think the game has lost something as a result, specifically the element of tactical manoeuvre. The turn sequence is less static than I thought it would be, because the “return fire” result which can be triggered when you shoot at someone potentially invokes a tennis rally of shots between opponents. However, not needing to set up a table and pull out figures means it actually gets played a lot more than many of my other games, so this is not entirely a bad thing.

The biggest problem I face is that the rules evaporate swiftly from my mind when not constantly in use, so if I set the game aside for a few weeks it’s a struggle to relearn it. This is something I’ve noticed before, going as far back as the 1980s; there are some games that just click for me, such as Traveller, and others that I never really internalise however much I like them, for example True20.

The game has a limited palette in terms of weapons, ships, and world generation, which to be fair is perfectly adequate in play. I’ve considered using Savage Worlds or Classic Traveller for characters and combat, and the world tags from Stars Without Number to flesh out worlds, but that’s quite a bit of effort, and I’m not sure how much value it would add; the simplicity of these elements is part of the game’s charm. Maybe later.

I would like to see more background detail on the nonhuman races; I know this exists, because parts of it are mentioned in various other THW products.

With the right players, this could work well as a co-operative space opera game, but my current group wouldn’t go for it; they want more crunch in their games. If you’re a solitaire player who wants to be Han Solo in your lunch break, though, this does the job very nicely.

Chases are a part of Savage Worlds which I’ve always struggled with, usually reverting to either tactical movement on battlemats or narrative description.

So, when I discovered this product, I acquired it to help me with that issue. It’s from the Rune^Forge, and costs $10 on DriveThruRPG at time of writing; available either in poker or tarot card size.

What You Get

Two PDF files; one with three pages of rules, one with the rules plus a set of modified playing cards intended to be printed at 9 to the page, at least in the poker size deck I bought.

The rules explain how to use the product, which is not the way the normal chase rules work. You decide how long the chase will be, and draw an appropriate number of cards – say three for an easy chase – face down. In each turn of the chase, you flip over the next card, which suggests an obstacle and several ways you might deal with it, usually by trait rolls. The character being pursued goes first, then the pursuer; success means you avoided or overcame the obstacle, failure means you gain a point of fatigue. Once you reach three fatigue, you drop out of the chase, meaning either the pursuer catches you, or the quarry escapes. The quarry also escapes if he successfully avoids the final obstacle.

Taking the ace of clubs as an example… this states the obstacle as “food vendor cart gets in the way”, and suggests four ways to overcome the obstacle; Athletics to “parkour it”, your Power Trait (I assume this means arcane skill), crush it with Strength or dodge around it with Agility. I thought parkour was a noun, but then I am a dinosaur who has traveled through time from the 1950s.

A raise on any of those rolls would let you recover a point of Fatigue, or inflict one on your opponent.

The rules also point out that the card suit tells you which general approach to take to overcome an obstacle, with examples, and explains that once you understand the ideas, you can use a standard action card deck and wing it.

Conclusions

Judging by the traits used on the cards, this is aligned to the latest version of the rules (Adventurer’s Edition). A number of the cards are focused on using vehicles, these could be separated and used as a smaller deck.

What I hadn’t grasped when I bought it is that the deck doesn’t help with the current chase rules, it replaces them. So, given my preference for sticking to the Rules As Written, I’m not sure how much it will help me there, but it does look like fun and should at least give me inspiration for obstacles. This one goes in the stack to try out.

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5.

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