The third act of Andy Slack's gaming blog

“Literal translations of game mechanics from other systems usually just result in cumbersome sub-systems that don’t add one minute of fun to the Savage version.” – Savage Worlds Deluxe

Having decided to drop Mongoose Traveller 2 and restructure my campaigns, I need to convert the standard Traveller races for use in Savage Worlds. The ones likely to be encountered “behind the claw” are aslan, solomani, vargr, vilani and zhodani, and fortunately those are the ones that are most human-like and therefore need the least conversion. (One of the good things about Traveller is the steady ramp up from familiar races to weird ones, from ordinary humans to hivers, so you can choose what level of strangeness to role-play.)

I reached for the rulebooks intending to do a detailed line-by-line check leading to a huge, complex set of racial templates; but then I thought no, that is not the Savage Worlds way. I’ve been playing Traveller for over 40 years and Savage Worlds for over 10, what are the key themes that define those races?

Humans are easy. Solomani, Vilani and Zhodani are plain vanilla humans, no changes needed apart from noting that Zhodani nobles and intendants use their free Edge for being human to buy Arcane Background (Psionics).

Vargr are the most human-like of the races. If I reach back to my Classic Traveller definitions, the only thing that stands out is they can bite in melee. So instead of a free Edge, Vargr start with Natural Weapon (Bite), and because that doesn’t use up all their racial points, I’ll give them Keen Sense of Smell as well because dogs – I’m not going to bother with odd pluses or minuses to attributes.

Aslan are basically samurai in lion suits to me. They’re big, they’ve got claws, and they have a code of honour; so that’s Brawny, Natural Weapon (Claws) and Code of Honour; that doesn’t quite balance, so they get Low Light Vision as well for being cats, and we’re done here. Same comments about attribute modifiers as for Vargr.

Job done, in less time than it took me to type up. Close enough for the kind of fast, furious and fun games I favour. To be reviewed when Savage Worlds Adventure Edition is published.

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The story goes that Warren Buffet, billionaire investor, gave his personal pilot some advice: Make a list of your top 25 goals, and circle the top five. Where this story diverges from what you might expect is the followup statement that “everything you didn’t circle just became your Avoid-At-All-Costs List”; whatever happens, those 20 items get no attention until the top five are finished. They are distractions; tempting distractions, but distractions nonetheless.

When I tried this at home, it quickly became apparent that although most of my free time and effort goes into gaming, that is not where most of my priority goals are. (There’s also the undeniable fact that I’m not 25 any more, and it’s getting harder to run or even play multiple games in parallel.)

So, I’ve decided to limit myself to one set of rules, running no more than two campaigns at a time (reducing to one within the next two years), and running at most one session per week. Henceforth, all gaming activity and purchases must serve those decisions. (As you’ll see, those campaigns are the Dracula Dossier and the Trojan Reach – I hesitate to call it the Pirates of Drinax now since the PCs have gone off-piste.)

This means one of the regular groups needs to go, and for various reasons I reluctantly decided to drop Team Harrier; but they have started their own Mongoose Traveller campaign on the side now, so they will still get their Traveller fix, thus assuaging my guilt.

Traveller Retrospective

Is Mongoose Traveller 2nd Edition a good game? Yes, absolutely; in my opinion, the best version of Traveller since the original classic edition of 1977, and I like that A LOT. Is it good enough for me to discard Savage Worlds? Not for the kind of games I want to run these days, no.

Firstly, there’s a thematic difference. Traveller is space noir; characters are ordinary people who get caught up in adventures and intrigues almost by accident, and have no mechanical advantage over NPC mooks. Savage Worlds characters are pulp heroes who get drawn into action-adventure movies and gun down mooks by the dozen. At my table, we prefer the latter.

Secondly, we’ve spent years learning Savage Worlds, and there’s no real advantage in switching to another system, so no real reason to change. I can’t see anything in Traveller that I couldn’t do in Savage Worlds faster and with less record-keeping; YMMV of course.

I will continue to use the starships and worlds from Traveller, as I like them better than the Savage Worlds equivalents – this is probably just because I’ve been using them all my adult life and I’m more comfortable with them. If you remember the Little Black Books, essentially I have replaced Book 1 with the Savage Worlds core rulebook.

Enough Figures

Recently, I mentioned idly to my wife that I was thinking of getting some new figures.

“Haven’t you got enough figures?” she said.

Now this is no thing to say to a tabletop gamer, and in the early years of our marriage might well have led to an argument; but this time I thought: “She is very often right. Is it possible that I do, in fact, have enough figures?”

That begs the question, how many figures are enough?

I no longer play tabletop wargames, partly because of scheduling problems (this job thing really gets in the way of my gaming) and partly because I’ve gone off Warhammer, so the driving factor is face to face role-playing sessions. For those, a party of six is about all I can handle, they only need one figure each, and enemy NPCs typically outnumber the party 2:1 in my games. So at any one time, there are only going to be 18 figures on the table. Let’s triple the PCs to give the players some choice; that adds another 12, taking us to 30 total – the major named NPCs can use the spare PC figures.

Like any tabletop gamer, I accept using one figure as a proxy for another, but I draw the line at using fantasy figures to represent science fiction ones. So let’s have 30 fantasy and 30 SF; total, 60. The SF figures can stand in for contemporary figures in my zombie apocalypse solo games, and although the fantasy mooks (skeletons and orcs) could stand in for zombies, I would prefer some proper zeds. Let’s go all out and say another 30 for that genre. Total, 90. Conveniently, that would fit into one of my old Warhammer cases, which have room for 108 figures each, with some room left over for dice and bennies.

I haven’t counted my collection lately, but judging by the number of boxes and cases it occupies, there are somewhere between 400 and 500 of the little devils. (I’ve been gaming a long time now.) So, in terms of raw numbers, I have to admit I do indeed have enough figures, though they may not be the right ones for my current games. I must also admit that they’ve all spent at least the last three years in cupboards, in case they get damaged, like the good china. It does seem pointless to buy more things that sit in cupboards not being used; let’s get them back on the table where they belong.

As Yakko might have said, “I think we’ve all learned a valuable lesson today: Never talk to your wife about buying figures.”

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana

The Dark Nebula boardgame is going back in its box, and the box is going back on the shelf. The Aslan Border Wars posts are consigned to the blog’s Vault category, where lurk the things I don’t expect to use again, but can’t quite bring myself to delete.

I don’t expect to repeat this exercise again – although I’ve thought that before, and been wrong. So what have I learned from it? Well, see the post about Crossing the Irrawaddy for the more philosophical version, but here are the lessons.

Overarching metaplots are neither necessary nor desirable, especially in solitaire play.

Hidden planets whose statistics, or existence, are concealed from the players are not very useful; all they do is force the GM to keep extra records. Better to show all the locations and statistics, and put the secrets in the adventures – or in solitaire play, allow them to emerge from the random encounters and events.

Using an old boardgame as a setting does give you a cool map, but you should throw away everything else; trying to follow the boardgame faithfully imposes too many constraints.

I can reuse a setting, but not a campaign story arc. Too much depends on things being fresh for me as the GM as well as the players. I know there are GMs out there who can and do rerun the same campaign for different groups; I’m not one of them.

Meanwhile, Dark Nebula – well done, thou good and faithful servant. Sleep well.

“Reality is broken.” – Jane McGonigal

I started wondering about adding my own random event tables to my SF games, and then thought: Why not use weird things that have actually happened to me?

Here are some of those events; what has happened to you that you could use?

In the Wilderness

You point out an interesting military vehicle to your native guide, who swears with increasing fear that it is no such thing and is in fact a simple civilian transport.

In the City

You are woken in the early hours of the morning by screams and crying outside your house. Investigating, you find a distraught young woman, either drunk or drugged, threatening to kill herself unless her boyfriend comes out; she has mistaken this house for his. When you try to engage her in conversation, she runs off into the night. Shortly, police arrive and question you politely about what you have seen. Nobody can find the woman, and eventually the police leave.

You arrive at your new apartment earlier than the landlord was expecting. Late that night, police with dogs barge in to capture the presumed “burglars”, but due to a second miscommunication they raid the apartment next door instead.

You are minding your own business when a member of the local military taps you on the shoulder. This is disconcerting until you realise he just wants you to light his cigarette.

At the Starport (Airport)

You arrive at the starport to discover that it is a local holiday. You are debarked and locked into a warehouse, after which the staff go home, leaving you and the other passengers there with your luggage. After some hours, a security guard on patrol hears the banging on the doors and lets you out.

At the starport, you and your companions are told that your flight has been delayed and are ushered into an uncomfortable waiting area. An announcement is made on the public address system, explaining that the flight has been delayed as it has to wait for some inconsiderate offworlders (you). After some hours, you are escorted to the ship; the other passengers are not pleased.

Your flight has been delayed for some hours by a baggage handlers’ strike. At length, the crew emerge and start loading the baggage themselves, whereupon the baggage handlers start a fight with them. Local police arrive, and make a half-hearted attempt to break it up, but are clearly sympathetic to the baggage handlers. Meanwhile, inside, a passenger demands to know what is going on, and you are the only person present who can speak her language. Explaining events to her somehow makes it your fault, and you find yourself in a heated argument.

Coda

In fiction or RPGs, within a few days of any of these happening to you, you’d be chasing villains past a tropical island in a speedboat, with a gorgeous, heavily-armed woman smouldering by your side; in real life, you’re back in the office responding to irate emails and wondering “What was that all about?”

Reality is broken.

Team Harrier: Lennox, Sanpo, Sanders, Harper, Jaker. NPCs: Lehman, Schneider, Sauer, von Wuffenstein.

When last seen, the Harrier was leaving Torpol, bound for Borite. In the intervening fortnight, they’ve picked up another PC, currently known as Jaker, who is a medic; as usual, I shall say he was on the ship the whole time, he just never featured in the action before now. I have also named the NPCs; Lehman and Schneider are the marines, and Sauer the gunner. Lehman is a former member of the Princess’ personal guard, and therefore – they suspect – the one most likely to gun them down if they try to make off with the ship.

We’re still playing the first adventure from the campaign story arc, Honour Among Thieves, and at the present rate of progress I expect it will take another two sessions to complete. This week, they followed their lead to Borite, where they rescued Krrsh, a vargr pirate marooned by his fellows after the attack on the Sarcomond, and captured the chamax he was hiding from by the simple expedient of shooting it until it was unable to resist further and then picking it up using battle dress and carrying it aboard ship. The ship’s engineers have been given the task of building a chamax-proof container for it; they are currently arguing over whether to sell it to the highest bidder or keep it as a ship’s mascot.

Meanwhile, Kirrin persuaded the varg to spill his guts, and they now know why the pirate gang attacked Torpol and Clarke; they also have a further lead, as their new shipmate thinks the pirate boss will have sent his lieutenant to Theev to negotiate with the locals.

The group asked to fast-forward from Borite to Theev, as they want to get on with the adventure. They also insisted that Krrsh’s surname should be von Wuffenstein, and what does it hurt if it is, really?

GM Notes

Running Traveller again has been like putting a pair of comfortable old gloves back on.

So far we have been hand-waving trade, but I will explain that to the group’s quartermaster in a side meeting, as if they stay on the main story arc – don’t look at me like that, it could happen – they will need the trading rules to handle their ill-gotten gains.

I also need to learn the combat rules properly, as I forgot half a dozen things in the excitement. I need to have those rules down pat before they engage in any serious firefights. I suppose I should extend that to ship combat eventually – I’m not keen on having ship combat back in my games, to be honest, but you can’t really do piracy without ship combat.

Looking forward, Harper’s player wants to be a GM, so once the group has finished Honour Among Thieves I’ll hand the group over to him for a session or three, during which I can play; we have agreed that my PC will be the cut-out and loyalty monitor for a mysterious patron, explaining why he only shows up when said patron commissions the group. I feel obliged to call him “Mr. Johnson” because of this.

After that, I’ll run some actual piracy so we can see how the rules for that work. I suspect piracy will become repetitive, and therefore boring, but perhaps jacking a ship or two in between set-piece adventures will work.

This year, I’ve run 40 episodes of the Arioniad using a mashup of Savage Worlds, Mongoose Traveller 2, and Zozer Games’ Solo. Here, I’ll focus on how Solo works as a game engine, and what else I’ve learned from the experiment.

Solo

As a solitaire game engine, Solo works very well. Although designed to support Traveller, it doesn’t ask for much from those rules; give it a starport class and a law level for each world you visit, and it’s happy. As far as characters go, Solo asks only that you know whether a given PC is an asset or a hindrance for your latest cunning plan, and abstracts physical, social and mental combat into a couple of dice rolls. I especially like the way it’s possible to fail in a lucky way, or succeed at a cost.

The central mechanic, the Plan, is completely portable to any solitaire RPG, although the situations it exists to resolve are driven by Solo’s encounter and event tables, and those are tied to space opera, so for fantasy or horror you’d need to modify them.

At this point it’s taking me about half an hour to run through each episode, making it ideal to slot into lunch breaks at work or those odd slots while dinner is cooking or I’m waiting for the shower water to heat up. No more than five minutes of that is dice rolling and looking up tables; most of it is figuring out what narrative ties the dice rolls together. This suits me very well.

Other Lessons

Sticking to a rigid weekly schedule of posts, with one game week per real week, did bring home just how big space is, but meant that sometimes I’ve ignored things that looked interesting, or written a post about a situation I wasn’t really inspired by, just to keep things moving at a self-imposed pace. In a group game, having a regular ‘drumbeat’ keeps things fresh in the players’ minds and simplifies scheduling the next session; but these are not required for a solitaire game, so it would be better to discard this constraint, and let the dice take me where they will, at their own pace.

In a year of wandering, Arion has visited 13 systems out of the 52 on the map, and of those 13, maybe 6 have the potential for further adventures. Even as their creator, I must admit that very few of these systems are going to interest me long-term, and a lot of gaming time is expended travelling across multiple uninteresting systems to the next scenario. The Savage Worlds approach, where every world is one jump away from every other world, makes a lot of sense from that perspective; otherwise, it’s better to press Fast Forward occasionally and zip the PCs across the map to the next obvious plot point, like Indiana Jones.

Having an overarching metaplot, in this case the Aslan Border Wars, is neither necessary nor desirable. It generates more work without any real benefits, and this is especially true for the solitaire player. All I actually needed to know was that Arion is based on a rich trade hub world in the no-man’s-land between two rival states.

Where Next?

I think Arion needs to lie fallow for a while now, as I feel a little burned out. He will return, no doubt, as he and his little band are my favourite characters, and I generally prefer science fiction to fantasy. There are a number of options.

As far as rules go, the Savage Worlds/Traveller mashup works very well, since each game has rules I can use to replace areas I dislike in the other; I prefer Savage Worlds for characters and combat, Traveller for ships and worlds. Stars Without Number has superior rules to both in a number of areas, notably world generation, but doesn’t mash up easily with either of them. Solo needs only minor tweaks to work with any of them. Fringe Space is another option; it doesn’t mash up well with anything, but being completely self-contained, it doesn’t need to.

Turning to settings, while one can always create homebrew settings, they’re a lot of work for very little reward. This means Traveller and Fringe Space have an edge; Traveller luxuriates in richly-detailed published settings, and Fringe Space has an emergent setting which is created organically during play. Stars Without Number has no published setting to speak of, and I struggle to get my head around SW’s Last Parsec.

So, it’s most likely that when Arion returns, it will be a Savage Worlds/Solo/Traveller mashup again, somewhere in or around the Third Imperium. Fringe Space is the second most likely, with Stars Without Number in third place.

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