The third act of Andy Slack's gaming blog

Chain Reaction provides a preview or demo of the Two Hour Wargames core rules engine as it applies to games where combat is dominated by modern firearms. Swordplay is the companion set for fantasy, where melee weapons, armour, and spellcasting take a front row seat.

In a Nutshell: The current iteration of THW’s core mediaeval fantasy rules, intended to let you try them before you buy one of the larger works. 31 page PDF, free to download. As usual for THW, the format is two column black on white text with a colour cover and the occasional illustration. This edition includes a sample battle board (a small forest clearing) and a set of counters so you can print and play.

The core rules are very similar to Chain Reaction 2018, reviewed here, so I’ll focus on the differences between the two demos.

Characters

As in Chain Reaction, your Player Character (Star) has three advantages over the NPCs (Grunts); Star Power to soak damage, Extraordinary Effort to boost one die roll per encounter, and Free Will to choose when to leave the encounter. Stars typically have Rep 5 and can recruit up to four Grunts as followers. Unlike Chain Reaction, where figures have only one Attribute determined by their Class, Swordplay Stars can have up to three Attributes; one from their Race, one from their Class, and one at random.

The main reason this demo is ten pages longer than Chain Reaction 2018 is that Chain Reaction has only one playable race (human), but Swordplay has ten (dwarves, elves, feral vampires, ghouls, goblins, men, ogres, orcs, skeletons, trolls). Each figure has a race which gives it one or two Attributes, which affect its behaviour in combat, and a Class (Caster, Creature, Knight, Shooter, Soldier, Thief) which determines how it fights and what else it can do. Demihumans and Stars may choose their alignment, but other races are aligned to the Red Sun (good), Black Moon (evil), or Neutral. Race and Class also determine the figure’s armour type (light, medium, heavy or extra heavy).

As I said in the Chain Reaction review, sometimes THW demos have rules for increasing and decreasing Rep, and sometimes they don’t; this one does. The same applies to the Challenge rules, which allow your Star to do things that aren’t explicitly in the rules, and Interaction rules, which let you negotiate with NPCs; Swordplay has those.

Combat

This is close enough to Chain Reaction that I won’t repeat myself – here’s a link to what I said last time. There are a couple of differences, though.

First, magic. While ranged attacks still occur before melee attacks, spellcasting goes before both. You can use whatever spell names and visual effects you like, but for game purposes there are three spells; Damage (ranged attack), Dazzle (which forces opponents to miss a turn), and Defend (which buffs armour type).

Second, Swordplay has different encounters (Explore, Defend, Raid) and a simple campaign system for linking them together, driven by what your last encounter was and whether you succeeded.

Third, armour. This affects damage rolls from ranged and melee weapons.

Conclusions

Much the same as for Chain Reaction, really; movement is now completely abstract, which speeds up and simplifies the game considerably at the cost of eliminating most tactical decision-making. The rules claim to be equally good for solitaire, same side and head to head play; I can see them working well for solitaire, but I doubt the jaded grognards I normally play with would find them complex enough to be interesting. I think even young children would want to move their counters or figures around the board, although the rules would otherwise be fine for newbies to the hobby.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5. Normally I rate Chain Reaction higher, because guns, but in this case the experience, interaction and campaign rules in Swordplay, simple as they are, are enough to inspire me. This one goes in the queue for later.

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“At the time in which Traveller occurs, however, universal psionic training does not exist; accurate information and quality training are available only through branches of the Psionics Institute, which is wholly devoted to the study of mental powers. Unfortunately, some prejudice exists, and the Institute maintains an extremely low profile.” – Traveller, Book 3

If the Travellers’ Aid Society is a mixture of the Youth Hostels’ Association, American Express and the Continental Hotel from the John Wick movies, the Psionics Institute is a combination of the Bavarian Illuminati, Columbian drug cartels and the KGB.

Why do I advance that theory? Read on…

From Book 3, we know the following about the Psionics Institute:

  • The Institute is a single organisation (it is always referred to in the singular, and its facilities are called “branches”).
  • It is devoted to the study of mental powers, but is very secretive due to widespread public prejudice. (Why do people hate psionics enough to lynch them? In the 1977 rules, that’s just how it is, but the reasons always seemed obvious to me; psions are different, many of them are telepaths who could easily find out your deepest, darkest secrets, and anybody could be one – you’d never know.)
  • It has branches on some high-population worlds which exist to test for, and train, psionic abilities. (Depending on world density, a subsector has roughly a 20-30% chance of having an Institute.) However, these may not be the only facilities; psionics can be found anywhere, and branches are vulnerable as they have to interact with mundanes, so might well be isolated by cut-outs.
  • 97% of people, thus 97% of psionics, come from worlds with population level 9 or 10, but only about one such world in six has an Institute branch. Therefore, psionics must travel widely to find training, which may explain why a disproportionate number of those who can afford training are spacers.
  • New members have either a high psionic strength (in which case they are no older than 30 as untrained strength degrades with age), or at least Cr 105,000 in disposable assets (which suggests a high social standing, or possibly a combination of determination and resourcefulness). Statistically (you can check this in Supplement 1: 1001 Characters), about 1 PC in 36 musters out with enough money to pay for testing and training – although a member of the TAS who lived frugally could raise that much in about two years – and about 75% of those made their money in a spacefaring career.
  • About 1 NPC in 36 encountered by PCs is psionic, and a like number are informants. So, either psionics are relatively common, or for some reason PCs bump into them a lot – possibly because a lot of them are career spacers, possibly because you need to travel widely to find a branch to train you. (Since being a psionic and being an informant are separate rolls for an NPC, there are some psionics who are also informants.)
  • Psi-drugs must be located and bargained for, and in many cases are illegal; however, they too can be found on any world. No other use for psi-drugs is mentioned, so one could assume they are made specifically for psionics, implying a link between the Institute and illegal drug manufacturing.

So: The Institute wants to study psionic abilities. It needs sources of new talent and money, because every organisation does, and testing and training psionic wannabees helps with both. Its members would prefer not to be lynched by the mundanes, so are likely to set up escape routes and safe houses. Access to (illegal) psionic drugs is a bonus, and presumably so is the ability to exchange research data and findings with fellow psionics on other planets.

Some of those who find the Institute and can pay for testing won’t have the money for training – and how could they know how much they need without finding the Institute first? Some of these will turn to crime to fund their training.

Meanwhile, those with power, money, and flexible morals long for the edge that the generally-despised psionics can offer; spies, crimelords, drug kingpins cultivating the market for their Psi-Double, nobles on the make. The drug kingpins in particular must know about the Institute before they start making psi-drugs, or why bother doing it? Some Institute branches are no doubt seduced by the offers of funding, pharmaceuticals and protection, and once you’re working for such a boss, why not become the power behind the throne or even take over their outfit? You can read their minds, after all.

Thus, any world with an Institute branch also probably has an ongoing covert struggle, in which the Institute, criminal organisations, noble families and local counter-intelligence apparats try to infiltrate and control each other, the Institute to get early warning of (and protection from) crackdowns and pogroms, and the others to gain access to their unique abilities. Potentially, other worlds have this sort of fun and games underway as well. At an interstellar level, the Institute benefits by manipulating governments in much the same way that the TAS manipulates the stock market.

If you want to be seriously paranoid, some TAS members are also psionic. Maybe they’re all in it together and have decided to divide up human space between them. Maybe the TAS is really a front for the Psionics Institute.

Working for the Institute

The Psionics Institute operates much like – and may even be – an organised crime cartel or a spy network. It needs a number of services PCs can provide, even if they’re not psionic themselves; actual psionics are too valuable to risk on minor errands. PCs are, of course, expendable, deniable, kept completely in the dark, and on their own if they get caught. Dust off your conspiracy theories for commission inspirations.

While the TAS hires military veterans for covert ops that steer the stock market in the direction they prefer, the Psionics Institute hires deniable, expendable mules, bagmen, drug manufacturers and other low-level assets, and perhaps, occasionally, more capable adventurers for more daring schemes.

Lesser Known Aspects of Psionics

How do you lie to a telepath? You don’t. You lie to somebody else and let the telepath read their mind.

How do you find a telepath? Use another telepath. If you can see someone with your eyes, and they are not wearing a psionic shield helmet, but they don’t show up on Life Detection, then they are a telepath. (You might want to wear a psionic shield helmet as a disguise; it’s no use just letting your Shield down, because then a telepath could read your mind and find out that you’re one as well.)

One randomly encountered NPC in 1,296 is a psionic who might also inform on the PCs to the authorities. Why would they do this? Well…

  • Psionic abilities are an edge that no criminal or intelligence organisation can afford to ignore. Maybe they are recruiting, and you work for them now – or if you prefer, you can be lobotomised; brain-dead men tell no tales.
  • Maybe the reward money is too tempting.
  • Maybe the informant is being hunted himself, and wants to divert the authorities’ attention elsewhere.
  • Maybe your Institute branch and his don’t get along. This is especially likely if you’re using the Freemasons as an analogue, see below.
  • Maybe the informant is just a jerk.

Maybe There’s Another Way…

If you don’t like the galactic domination conspiracy version of the Institute, probably the closest historical analogue is Freemasonry and the various similar organisations which grew up around it, in particular the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. If you go down that route, branches are much like Masonic Lodges, and the Institute as a whole has the following attributes:

  • Members have to find the Institute’s branches, ask to join, and pass certain tests. We know this is true.
  • Members must keep the Institute’s secrets, aid each other where practical, and contribute to charity. We might reasonably infer these are true, especially the first one.
  • While nearby branches might coordinate their activities, there is no overall “grand branch” which directs the Institute as a whole; branches may have different interests, secrets, training methods and so on, and need not necessarily recognise each other as legitimate. If they do, however, the implication of the duty to aid each other where practical is that visiting members of recognised Institutes could count on some help from the locals. If they can find them.
  • It’s still reasonable to infer the Institute is linked with positions of power. In the real world, a large proportion of British police and judges are Freemasons, and roughly one-third of US Presidents to date are known to have been Freemasons.
  • The question with this approach is, why do Institutes on different worlds communicate? Sharing research data and training methods is possible, but with the next nearest Institute three subsectors away (and potentially compromised) is it worth the cost and risk?

That last point is what tipped me towards a galactic conspiracy, but hey, it’s a big galaxy; why not have both kinds of Institute?

One last short burst upon failing feet –
There life lay waiting, so sweet, so sweet,
Rest in a darkness, balm for aches.
The earth was stopped. It was barred with stakes.
– John Masefield, Reynard the Fox

New Hope City, September ’01

Now we’re up to scenario 11 of the published campaign, which I’ll assume is the involuntary encounter at the start of month 9.

“You were right,” Arion says quietly. “It is a nice change to be off the ship for a few days.”

“Mm-hmm,” says Coriander, half-awake. “Osheen’s mind is weird, it’s like there are thousands of bugs or something instead of a human mind. It’s tiring.”

There is a pause.

“What’s that noise?” asks Coriander.

Arion cocks his head to listen, then reaches for his 12.5mm and definitely not GP standard issue pistol.

“I think someone’s trying to get in,” he says. “Get ready, quietly though.”

Coriander shakes her head to clear it and reaches under the bed, emerging with an assault rifle with a folding stock, for the female of the species is more deadly than the male. The pair slip out of bed and pad over to the door; Arion has a hand free, so takes the handle and gently opens it.

They burst into the lounge to find two shadowy figures tip-toeing across it.

It’s night, so everyone is in cover. The tables on page 62 and a couple of dice rolls tell me that this is a pair of unarmed Rep 4 blue-collar workers from Lower Hope, one basic and one zhuh-zhuh.

Arion passes 2d6 (not hard, he is effectively Rep 8) and the opposing leader passes 0d6. However, the would-be assailants have advantage – this is only used to break ties, so Arion and Cori go first and open fire. Arion puts one shot on each, and Cori puts one into the basic and two into the zhuh-zhuh, which is bigger and more menacing. Arion misses once, hits once, and the zhuh-zhuh ducks back. Cori misses the basic because he is in cover, and since the zhuh-zhuh has ducked back, she can’t hit it.

The night is torn by flashes from the guns; the basic is unhurt, and the zhuh-zhuh, grazed, ducks back around the door into the corridor outside.

As the active side has now finished its actions, both sides take the Will to Fight test. Everyone passes 2d6, so the fight continues. The Joes now activate and charge into melee, as they have no guns with which to return fire. The basic leader charges Arion, and the zhuh-zhuh charges Cori. This is a bad idea as Our Heros get to shoot while the Joes are closing. Arion hits once and misses once, and the basic is Out Of the Fight. Cori hits twice, and the zhuh-zhuh ducks back – just as well, the second hit would have killed it. We now take another Will to Fight check; Arion passes 1d6 (even at Rep 8, a 6 always fails), the zhuh-zhuh passes 1d6, and suddenly everyone wants to leave the battle board. Since both sides leave at the same time, I decide neither is defeated, so neither suffers Decreasing Rep d6.

With a roar, the two intruders try to charge into melee. Arion cuts the basic down, and the zhuh-zhuh is grazed again and ducks back into the corridor a second time.

Arion quickly assesses the situation. An unknown number of attackers, apparently trying to capture them for unknown reasons since they are not using weapons, and not deterred by being shot at. There could be more outside, but the ones in here aren’t giving up. He smashes the window with his pistol and triggers the fire escape, risking a quick glance outside. No sign of anyone waiting for them, no-one shooting at him from outside. Worth taking a risk.

“Cori!” Arion yells over the screams and gunfire. “WE. ARE. LEAVING!” It’s the work of seconds for both to dive out of the window, slide down the ladder, and flee into the night. Thankfully, nobody is waiting for them. Arion taps his commlink.

Dolphin,” he orders, “Emergency pickup at my location. Send the gravsled and Mr Osheen. We’re being attacked, I don’t know how many of them there are or what they’re armed with. I saw two, one is down and Cori winged another.” He thinks for a moment. “Call the police and an ambulance, but we’re not waiting for them.”

They fall back at speed through alleyways towards the starport, covering each other in turn.

“What the hell was that all about?” Cori gasps as they run.

Character Updates

Arion has 3 DRD (ship maintenance) and one IRD for putting a foe OOF; current total for the month, -2. The others will each get one IRD as wages from Arion’s total at the end of the month, if he can afford it, so he needs to score at least 5 IRD before then or start losing Grunts. See GM notes for details.

  • Arion: Rep 7 Spaceship Crew, Quick Reflexes, Resilient. B2, P1, melee, SBA. Lifetime Rep: 10.
  • Coriander: Rep 5 Doctor, Free Spirit. A3, melee, SBA. Lifetime Rep: 8.
  • Dmitri: Rep 4 Investigator, Smooth. B2, P1, melee, SBA. Lifetime Rep: 5.
  • Osheen: Rep 3 Grath Mercenary, Rage, A3, melee, SBA. Lifetime Rep: -3.

GM Notes

Notice that combat involves a lot of attacks per turn, that even if you are a bona fide action hero (Rep 6 and up) you can still miss, and that even if you’re winning, the dice can decide you want to leave the fight.

I’m switching Coriander and Dmitri to Grunts. From discussion with the author on the THW Forum (recently moved so you may need to update your link), it looks like the following is the case:

  • The Star gets the ship maintenance DRD, and also gets the IRD from completing jobs or selling salvage.
  • The Star pays each Grunt one IRD from his total at the end of each month. If he can’t pay, the Grunt leaves, and the Star gets one DRD in bad press.
  • IRD for defeating foes, negotiation etc go to whichever character does the work – the Star is free to choose which follower does what, to make best use of their abilities.

Now they are Grunts, Dima and Cori only have one attribute each. Browsing the tables on pages 14-15, I’m happy with Arion’s Quick Reflexes and Resilient, and will leave Cori and Dima with Free Spirit and Smooth respectively.

I did think about introducing skills, but they are optional, and not using them doesn’t seem to be causing any problems. Maybe later.

We’re not doing any interstellar movement this month, so episode 60 will move us to encounter 12 from the published campaign; it looks like encounters 11-13 are all part of the same campaign month, so there is time to get those 5 Increasing Rep dice yet.

“The Travellers’ Aid Society is a private organisation which maintains hostels and facilities at all class A and B starports in human space. Such facilities are available (at reasonable cost) to members and their guests.” – Traveller, Book 1

From page 22 of Book 1, we also learn the following about the TAS:

  • It awards membership to deserving Player Characters “which may be construed as a reward for heroism or extraordinary service to the society.”
  • One can buy lifetime membership for a flat payment of one million Credits.
  • The TAS invests this money and uses it to operate its facilities and give each member a High Passage (worth Cr 10,000) every other month. (Given the number they buy, they probably have some sort of volume discount, but I’ll ignore that for the moment. Note also the implication that any High Passage is good for any trip, which I will return to in a later post.)

Let’s pause for a moment to look at the economics of membership, because the closest thing Traveller has to a Prime Directive is the statement “everything is driven by economics”. I’ll assume that most people buy their membership, and PCs with free membership are the exception rather than the rule. This means the TAS gets a one-time payment of a million Credits, and uses that to pay each member the equivalent of Cr 60,000 per annum, a 6% return, for the rest of the member’s life. Therefore, the TAS itself must make more than 6% per annum on its investments, as it does give away some memberships for free.

It’s a lot easier to check this stuff out now than it was in 1977, thanks chiefly to the internet, but it looks like over the long term the stock market returns something like 7% after inflation – I am not going to mess with inflation and taxes – so it’s barely possible that the TAS is a non-profit organisation which returns everything to its members. (Government bonds are safer, but just about hold their own against inflation, and savings accounts don’t even manage that; so I’ll assume the TAS is playing the stock market.)

The only organisations mentioned in the rules that might have influence on multiple worlds are whoever controls navy and scout bases, the Psionics Institute, and the TAS – and the TAS is the only one explicitly stated to have facilities throughout human space, on roughly 40% of worlds in fact.

If you’re looking for a shadowy organisation, hiring PCs to manipulate events from behind the scenes and hiding in plain sight, the TAS is a very good candidate. It has vast wealth, vast expenditure, agents everywhere, (probably) no allegiance to any specific world – and, we may assume, a definite interest in favourable stock markets.

When I started playing Traveller, I imagined the TAS as a cross between American Express and the Youth Hostels Association. Now, I think of it as being more like the Continental Hotel in the John Wick movies, using High Passages instead of “coins”, and discreetly intervening in the affairs of worlds when that will shift stock prices in its favour.

Ex-military PCs given free membership for “heroism” or “services rendered”? I think I know what is going on there…

“Let’s get back to New Hope, that’s where we’re supposed to be.”

Balestra, August ’01

5150 No Limits Maiden Voyage, out of the box. Arion (B14), Coriander (B1) and Dmitri (B11) face off against a lone mugger (B2) in an alley. Counters and (part of) the battle board provided in the game.

If I follow the published campaign, somehow we need to get back from encounter 10 in Ring 7 to encounter 11 on New Hope. That means an involuntary encounter on Balestra, interstellar movement to New Hope, and then possibly one or two encounters on arrival.

We start the month on a planet, so I check page 30 and roll 1d6 for our involuntary encounter; 3, a robbery. The special instructions on page 50 and a couple of die rolls tell me our little band is set upon by a lone Rep 5 Logical Basic ganger with a P1 pistol at night. Gotta love an optimist.

“Hands up!” shouts a voice from the shadows of the dark alley. “Give us all your money and stuff, now, or we’ll shoot!”

Coriander mutters to Arion: “He will shoot, but he’s alone.”

“I can see why psionics are so unpopular,” says Dmitri, sotto voce.

Here you see me using Coriander’s psionic powers to bridge the gap between what I know (there is only one opponent) and what the characters know (that opponent says he is part of a larger force).

Looking at page 51 the robber may actually have a chance here, since he is rolling 3d6 vs Rep (an extra d6 for a drawn weapon), we each roll 2d6 vs Rep, and if we fail badly enough we might just give up our stuff. Arion is a Star so can choose to resist, and does so. Cori and Dima each pass 1d6, Mr Osheen passes 2d6, and the robber passes 3d6. Good lord, he’s going to get away with it unless Arion stops him!

Coriander, Dmitri and Mr Osheen all put up their hands, although Mr Osheen does so in a state of some confusion. Still, he supposes, everyone else is doing it. Some new martial arts stance perhaps? Humans are so much more inventive than his own people.

“Call that a pistol?” Arion asks. “Now this,” he says, drawing his own handgun, which is considerably larger, “is a pistol.”

Sadly the robber is not waiting for the repartee to finish, and combat ensues. I roll 1, so Arion has the advantage. His Quick Reflexes also give him +1 Rep on the Action Table, so he is effectively Rep 8 – however a 6 is always a failure. Arion still passes 2d6 though, while the robber passes 1d6; Arion goes first and opts to shoot the robber twice. Note that because it’s dark, everyone counts as in cover. Arion rolls 2d6 vs Rep for each shot – it’s worth rolling because a natural “6” always fails on the Shooting Table – and passes 2d6 on each shot, so both hit. If he had only passed 1d6, he would have missed as the target is in cover.

Arion’s firing stroke is well-practiced and his speed uncanny. Two shots ring out.

Arion now rolls 1d6+1 for each hit (the +1 is because the target has Soft Body Armour, which everyone does in this particular game) and scores 4, 5. The highest score is applied first (and to the first target if there are several); because it is the same as the robber’s Rep, and he is neither a grath nor an exotic, he is Out Of the Fight. The second damage roll is less than the target’s Rep, so he would duck back, but can’t as he is already incapacitated. On a natural 6, he would have been killed outright.

Hit twice, the robber slumps to the ground.

“May I now absorb his bodily fluids for nourishment?”

“Thank you, Mr Osheen, but no. Just one of the local kids playing around, I’m sure. Come on, I’ll buy you some soup.”

“No croutons.”

“As you wish.”

New Hope Orbit, August ’01

If I understand the rules correctly, while there is one PEF to resolve per Ring travelled while on a job, there are no encounters during interstellar movement unless one is on a job. However I do need to roll 1d6 for campaign movement overall, and get a 1; this ends movement and the month’s play.

“New Hope Control, this is the GP Trader Dolphin inbound from Ring 7 with an empty hold.”

“No need for hazmat teams then, I guess. Welcome back Dolphin, sending landing coordinates now, we’ll put you on Pad 6.”

“Good to be back, New Hope Control, landing on Pad 6.”

Character Updates

This month we each have 3 DRD and Arion has 1 IRD for dropping a robber; Osheen loses a point of Rep. Never mind, I foresee a lot of violence in his future, it’ll soon grow back.

  • Arion: Rep 7 Spaceship Crew, Quick Reflexes, Resilient. BAP2, P1, melee, SBA. Lifetime Rep: 10.
  • Coriander: Rep 5 Doctor, Free Spirit, Smooth. A3, melee, SBA. Lifetime Rep: 8.
  • Dmitri: Rep 4 Investigator, Logical, Smooth. BAP2, P1, melee, SBA. Lifetime Rep: 5.
  • Mr Osheen: Rep 3 Grath Mercenary, Rage, A3, melee, SBA. Lifetime Rep: -3.

GM Notes

Do not boogie with a Rep 7 Star. He will mess you up.

Actually since everyone except Mr Osheen is a Star, they could all have chosen their response rather than rolling for it. I must remember that in future. However, the rules don’t say that they must resist, just that they could.

I see that with Lifetime Reps like this we’re going to wind up as drunken starport bums. We’d better start hustling.

“The referee has the responsibility for mapping the universe before actual game play begins. The entire universe is not necessary immediately, however, as only a small portion can be used at any one time.” – Traveller, Book 3

You don’t often see subsector maps created using the 1977 rules; and if you look at the map below, you’ll see why. The space lanes (pale blue lines) restricting commercial travel between worlds disappeared starting with Adventure 1: The Kinunir in 1979, about the same time that travel zones were added, and had completely vanished by the time the revised rules appeared in 1981. Mongoose Traveller has added trade routes, which link worlds with complementary trade classifications within 4 hexes of each other, an interesting idea which we shall not consider further here – maybe later.

“Here’s one I prepared earlier…”

Space Lanes

Space lanes restrict travel in two ways. First, you can only buy course tapes for routes that follow space lanes; this means PCs with a ship need to spend Cr 800,000 on the Generate programme for their ship’s computer before they can stray off the space lanes. (Course tapes have no cost listed in the 1977 rules, but in the 1981 rules cost Cr 10,000 per parsec.) Second, civilian NPC ships only travel along space lanes, so if the PCs don’t have a ship, they can only travel to worlds on space lanes.

This is largely a complex and time-consuming way of identifying a couple of worlds in the subsector that see very little traffic, leaving the referee to ponder why that might be; that function is served by travel zones in later editions of the rules, and eventually guidelines emerged for the referee on which worlds should have amber or red zones. Sometimes, a high-jump route goes through a hex without stopping at the world in it – the dotted line in the picture above is one of those, nobody goes to Krasny Lutch.

Where there are many space lanes converging on a planet, like Siran on the map above, you may reasonably infer it’s a trade hub of some kind. In the real world, such ports tend to be nodes where passengers and cargo switch from one route to another, so they might not necessarily have anything of interest beyond their strategic location.

Creating the Map

Classic Traveller allows you to create your subsector in phases. The map above took about two hours to create (most of it spent checking for space lanes), including rendering it in Hexographer, and is enough to do simple missions (“Okay, you’re on Siran and the scout has been reactivated to carry a close-mouthed courier and a ton of cargo under diplomatic seal to Alajuelita, stat.”). I usually roll for the world presence, starport type, bases and gas giants at the same time, using different-coloured dice for each feature, and mark them on the map as I go; this edition just says you should mark world presence, but I find the other features really useful and have always done it this way. I’ve tried various ways of rolling up space lanes; it’s a pain however you do it, and it usually messes up the map somehow, which is one reason I started using Hexographer – editing the space lanes is easier.

The second phase is when you determine world profiles and trade classifications. If there’s room I put those on the map as well, especially the latter as it helps PC merchant captains decide where to go next, and they also act as a primitive form of the world tags which are the best feature of Stars Without Number. Now you have enough to run pretty much any kind of adventure; you can flesh out the world description on the fly in play.

The third phase is when you look at things like animal encounter tables (which I usually ignore entirely) and the narrative aspects of the world. What kind of planet is a waterworld with a population of ten billion and a religious dictatorship for a government? That kind of thing. Be warned though, the more effort you put into lovingly detailed descriptions of your world, the more it stings when the PCs set fire to it and run off to somewhere you didn’t think they’d ever go and haven’t prepared.

In Mongoose Traveller, you need to do the first two phases together, because the starport class is affected by the rest of the world profile; and in phase three you might want to work out local political factions as well, although Mongoose haven’t done that themselves in any of their products I’ve bought.

Decisions, Decisions

Before you start, it’s worth asking yourself how your PCs are going to travel – since that one time when the group rolled up a free trader and three scoutships, I don’t leave that to chance anymore; I decide if they’re getting a ship, and what kind.

If a world is present on a 3+, you get a subsector map full of worlds with a few holes it in; I find maps like this too busy visually and generally unattractive. They also have very few points of strategic importance – the PCs can always go a different way.

With worlds present on a 4+, you get chains of adjacent worlds meeting at junction nodes, with a few isolated worlds only accessible to jump-2 ships. This favours jump-1 traffic like Free Traders, and if using the space lanes rules you get a cobweb of trade routes obscuring the map. If your PCs don’t have a ship, or have a Type A, this is probably the best fit.

On a 5+, you get clusters of worlds, mutually accessible by jump-1 ships, but separated from each other by jump-2 gaps. This favours scoutships and far traders, so it’s the way to go if you expect the PCs to have one of those – or if they have a free trader but you want to confine them to a small number of worlds to begin with. Judging by the numbers of worlds, most published materials have used this frequency.

One thing that used to slow me down enormously was selecting names for worlds; now I skip gaily along to the list of all the world’s cities maintained by the UN and pick some obscure city names from the bottom of their data table. That’s where the world names in the example above came from.

I prefer to roll subsectors by hand, which I think gives me a better ‘feel’ for them; but there are several generators online, of which I’d say the Zhodani Base has the best one.

Interstellar Powers

I think these deserve separate posts of their own, which they will have shortly. Although Book 3 says the title Emperor is reserved for the ruler of “an empire of several worlds”, there are no large interstellar states by default in these rules – they are first hinted at in 1978 in Book 4, Mercenary, which states “Traveller assumes a remote centralised government (referred to in this volume as the Imperium)”, and more detail appears from 1979 on, starting with Adventure 1: The Kinunir and Supplement 3: The Spinward Marches.

In the average 40-world subsector, you might have 4-5 worlds with government type 6, “a colony or conquered area”, but an interstellar state under the 1977 rules would likely be a loose confederation, with individual worlds being almost completely independent both of each other and the larger state – something like the contemporary United Nations.

As a teaser, in this version of Traveller, the factions projecting power across interstellar distances include some you might not expect, using unusual methods; I refer, of course, to the Psionics Institute – and the Travellers’ Aid Society…

“President Rizal is looking for someone with a ship to interdict the planet.”

Balestra Orbit, July ’01

“Are we pirates now?” Coriander asks, not without a certain excitement at the thought.

“Depends who you ask,” says Dmitri. “Out here in the 7th Ring, one person’s pirate is another person’s hero.”

“Keep your eyes open for other people’s heroes,” says Arion, “And remember this is the Ring where Bugs first showed up. We didn’t see any Bug havens in the polar orbit scan, but a cocoon ship could arrive at any time.”

Actually it won’t, mostly because I haven’t got the relevant 5150 books with me. Like most of Arion’s adventures, in the real world this is happening a few paragraphs at a time during my quieter lunch hours at work, then being uploaded into the next available blog post slot some days in advance.

Today I’m looking at encounter 10 in the published campaign, in which we need to resolve 1d3 PEFs approaching Balestra and deal with them as we see fit. There are specific encounter tables for this scenario, and some die rolls tell me that we need to deal with only one PEF this month, which turns out to be a Hishen slaver which wants to steal our ship and sell us into slavery. No thank you!

It turns out there are only two significant NPCs on board, a Rep 3 Hishen and a Rep 4 Grath. This is too good to miss, so I decide to try a Difficult Interaction with the Grath. Arion rolls 1, 6 and passes 2d6; the Grath rolls 4,2 and also passes 2d6. I’m not happy with that as it means the Grath will ignore me, so I use Extraordinary Effort and roll another d6 – a 4. Now I’ve passed more dice, which is a favourable result and one IRD, but I want to push my luck here and attempt a further interaction.

I want to be sure of winning the further interaction, so I pay a Decreasing Rep d6 to Sweet Talk the Grath (p. 20); I only need one, because with Rep 7 Arion is bound to pass all the dice. Arion rolls 2, 3, 4 and passes 3d6. The Grath rolls 3, 4 and passes 2d6. Arion gains an extra IRD (cancelling out the DRD from Sweet Talk) and can recruit the Grath.

“Incoming hail from the slaver,” announces the Dolphin.

“On screen,” commands Arion, and the communications screen lights up to show the slaver’s bridge, with a hishen in the command chair and a grath with an assault rifle standing behind him.

“Cease accelerating and prepare to be boarded,” orders the hishen in the Hegemony trade language, a pidgin of Gaean known as Gaea Speak. “You and your craft are now the property of the Hishen Empire.”

“One moment,” says Arion. “Where’s the razor? You lot always have a razor in charge.”

“I killed her,” says the grath helpfully. “And absorbed her bodily fluids for nourishment.”

“Shut up,” says the hishen.

“Mr Osheen!” cries Arion joyfully. “Gaea bless us, dear fellow, it’s been years since I saw you last! What have you been up to?”

“Killing my enemies,” Osheen explains. “And absorbing their bodily fluids for nourishment.”

“Mr Osheen, how would you like to work with me again? You could have your own stateroom, and an industrial blender. I know you wanted one of those.”

See that blender? That’s the Sweet Talk in action, right there.

Osheen considers the offer. “An industrial blender would simplify absorbing my enemies’ bodily fluids for nourishment,” he admits.

“Shut up shut up shut up!” cries the hishen. “You basics, surrender or…” his voice is cut off as Osheen grabs his head and squeezes, hard. There is a popping noise as the hishen’s head implodes under the pressure. Osheen licks his fingers thoughtfully, while Coriander grimaces and looks away.

“I have decided,” he states. “I will join your crew, since the hishen did not treat me well, even after I killed the captain and absorbed her bodily fluids for nourishment.”

“Excellent! I am delighted at the thought of flying with you again. I will feel much safer knowing you are on board. Now, do you remember the fluids you must not absorb for nourishment when you fly with me?”

The grath struggles with this concept, counting them off on his fingers. “I must not absorb the captain’s bodily fluids, the crew’s bodily fluids, the passengers’ bodily fluids.” He pauses for a moment, checking his fingers, sure he has missed one, then brightens. “Ah! Or the hyperdrive coolant.”

“Well done! That is everything. We’ll be over to pick you up shortly.” Arion cuts the channel.

“Okay, now we are going to want to give him a few minutes.”

“Why?”

“What do you think he will do with the hishen’s body?”

“Ah,” says Dmitri. “He will absorb the bodily fluids. For nourishment.”

“Bingo,” says Arion, but Coriander is not amused.

“Are you really going to have a grath in the crew? Are you mad? Did you see what he did just then?”

“Umm, in order: Yes, quite possibly, and yes. Cori, grath have their flaws, chiefly bad table manners, and they’re not much smarter than a rock, but they are exceptionally loyal, and there’s no-one better to have on your side in a fight. Look at us; a pilot, a doctor, a spy. If we get involved in a serious fight we’re not going to survive.”

“He didn’t look exceptionally loyal when he killed the hishen,” Cori points out.

“He was fine with me,” Arion says. “He didn’t kill me once in all the time I knew him.”

“Wait a minute,” says Dmitri. “Aren’t grath shot on sight in Hegemony space? How did you meet him?”

“In twelve years as a survey scout, how much time do you think I spent in Hegemony space? I grant you, we might want to keep him on board on some planets, but New Hope doesn’t care – there was one in Berengei’s the day we landed.”

Balestra, July ’01

As per p. 47, we can sell the ship as contraband for 1d3 IRD per hull point divided by the Class of the planet. I can also check for cargo and see the slaver has 2 hull points of legitimate cargo on board. This is a terrible place to sell anything, but what the hell, let’s see what happens.

Slaver ship: 1d3 IRD per hull point (3), resolved separately and divided by the planet class (3). I roll 1, 2 and 3; the 1 and 2 round down to zero, and the 3 becomes 1 IRD.

Cargo: 2 IRD per point (2), divided by world class (3) and rounded down; 1 IRD.

“Balestra is a terrible place to sell anything,” Cori says.

“I told you not to sign the contract,” Dmitri says. “That bit where we have to sell to the President at rates set by him? Not good.”

“And I told you we should’ve cleaned the ship up before we tried to sell it. There were bits of hishen and mouldy razor everywhere.”

Arion shrugs. “Easy come, easy go. Let’s get back to New Hope, that’s where we’re supposed to be.”

“I wondered when you’d remember that,” says Dmitri.

Character Updates

This month Arion’s Rep dice are: -3 (ship upkeep), +1 (job), +2 (interaction), -1 (Sweet Talk), +2 (cargo and ship sale); net of +1. He rolls a 3 and there’s no change. Cori and Dmitri net out to zero, so don’t roll, and Mr Osheen has no dice so far – he’s happy with his new blender.

  • Arion: Rep 7 Spaceship Crew, Quick Reflexes, Resilient. BAP2, P1, melee, SBA. Lifetime Rep: 12.
  • Coriander: Rep 5 Doctor, Free Spirit, Smooth. A3, melee, SBA. Lifetime Rep: 11.
  • Dmitri: Rep 4 Investigator, Logical, Smooth. BAP2, P1, melee, SBA. Lifetime Rep: 8.
  • Mr Osheen: Rep 4 Grath Mercenary, Rage, A3, melee, SBA. Lifetime Rep: 0.

GM Notes

How could I resist bringing Osheen back after SJB suggested it and we met a grath? It’s taken me a while, but I’ve realised that Arion’s prior career can cover a multitude of sins in terms of who and what he knows, I don’t need to wait for a suitable encounter and play out the “first date”, hoping it gives the right outcome. Oh, unlike the others, Osheen is a Grunt, not a Star; this is so I can experiment with how they operate differently, as I am still considering downgrading Cori and Dima to Grunts, partly for expediency, and partly because it feels like cheating to have more than one Star – although Larger Than Life, also from THW, used to have a Star, a Co-Star, and a Love Interest, which is pretty much what I wound up with.

I’ve also reread the rules on increasing and decreasing Rep d6 and it looks like I should continue tracking Rep separately for each member of the band. It’s not clear to me whether everyone should get the wages and ship expenses or just Arion. If I remember I will ask on the forum.

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