Classic RPG Review #2: Traveller

Starter Edition and Booklets 4 (Mercenary) and 5 (High Guard)
by Marc W. Miller
1983 Game Designers' Workshop

For a long time, Traveller was the only science fiction role playing game worth knowing about. There were many others of course, including a D&D spin off, but there was no serious contender. What D&D was for fantasy, Traveller was for Science Fiction.

Strangely enough the game does not really allow you to play a typical Star Wars or Star Trek campaign. The rules allow for Phaser and Blaster-like weapons, but these are typically much more high tech than what the players have. And Traveller is somewhat darker, more corporate, militaristic and less friendly than these two blockbuster phenomenae. You can however style your Traveller campaign more easily to Blake's Seven, Alien, or the more recent Firefly series.

Like the original set, the starter set is boxed with booklets in stylish black covers. There is little artwork inside, and it's all black and white, but it's still nice to look at. One book contains the rules, the other contains all sorts of tables needed in the game. It's not as bad as the math supplement needed in college, but it comes close. And it has the same almost magical appeal for others, like me. These tables uncover new worlds, literally in this case.

Because much of the Traveller game is generating stuff, by rolling dice. You generate heroes, generate their histories and careers, generate worlds, generate encounter tables, and later the encounters themselves and you generate or rather design starships and vehicles. As you roll the dice subsectors of the unknown universe grow under your hands.
It's not the same as role playing, but I loved it. I even wrote computer routines to handle the tables and dice for me. Whole new universes rolled out of my printer. I just had to interpret the codes.

At the same time I longed for playing or mastering a Traveller campaign. And that is where the game falls short. It does not provide a strong adventuring concept. You can run lots of small military style missions, commissioned by so called “patrons”, but there is no true backdrop to your stories. The starter set does not mention a Dark Empire that threatens Freedom and Democracy. Nor does it sport a clearly corrupt Federation for whom the heroes have to hide and flee. There are not even any dungeons to rid of their monsters and treasure.

Consequently I played very few Traveller games. Shame.

Subsequent Traveller editions did have more inspiring backdrops, and supplements and adventures published in White Dwarf magazine tried to remedy the gap. One very nice concept in these was the computer virus which made ship's computers sentient, and hostile to their crew and passengers. Nasty. But it didn't really help me or my friends. Most preferred fantasy after all, or missed the magic, or they wanted something more like Star Wars or Star Trek – and never both.

Still, Traveller holds a favorite place on my bookshelves. The rules are simple, fairly realistic in that they make you avoid combat, and balance seems to be little of a problem as the heroes hardly change over a series of adventures. New skills are seldom learned, and old ones seldom become better. No growth like that in this game, sorry! Instead most fun in Traveller is before the playing. Its career and world generation tables are first class: a solitary game in themselves.

(rules are elegant, and fairly flexible and realistic. They do lack some detail however and have little room for growth during the game)
(although the career and world generating systems are very inspiring, the rest of the background is scetchy and it needs effort to mold into a campaign)
(although the rules are fairly clear, a great burden is laid in the hands of the game master to make the game work)
(hard core, slightly militaristic science fiction in the traditions of Niven and Heinlein, mostly human centred, skill based but virtually limited to military careers, almost no progression possible, 2d6 based combat and tasks with die modifiers based on skills and abilities, some limited psionic talents may be acquired by the heroes – such as telepathy and clairvoyance)



Pick #2: Crazy Alternate Movie Trailers

Strictly speaking silly movies on Youtube hardly have anything to do with role playing. But they can be great fun, amazing, and inspirational for wacky adventures. Have you ever wondered how lovely Mary Poppins could turn out to be scarier than the excorcist? Try this then. I can see a cool Mary of Cthulhu episode next time :-) Or how about this (slightly sick but very well made) spoof of Gladiator? Or learn how you could GM the effects of too much beer in this banned commercial... And remember, too much web surfing may be bad for your elf.


Free Download: French Invade Texas RPG

It's been revamped!
A surprisingly historical role playing game, 80 pages of background, pd-artwork, system,
setting, examples, very historic but adventurous characters, and a full campaign of six episodes based on true events.
Originally I wrote this game after being inspired by the very positive review on DD by Rob Lang on the free rpg blog, I decided to have a go at the 24-hour role playing game challenge. You might still find the 50-ish page version there. But this one is better :-)

The year is 1684
The world is in turmoil
The English are between civil wars
The Spanish king is insane and epileptic
The Spanish are at war with everyone
The French Invade Texas


Update: the link has been dead for a while, but now you can find the original for pay what you want at RPG Now.

Classic RPG Reviews: Read First

Classic Reviews is a series of reviews, not just for the games in the store, but for the games you do not find in the store. Many of the games here have been out of print for some time, may be virtually impossible to buy second hand, or may never have been sold at all – or not for profit anyway. But most of them are on my bookshelf. That's what happens when you play for thirty odd years.

So, then why on earth review them?Well, I believe our hobby has evolved a lot in the thirty-plus years it exists, and not all of this evolution is visible in the current commercial trends. To the contrary. Looking at the older games may be quite insightful. It may be that things did not (only) become better. Or maybe they did. You decide.

For sure it's a treasure of old ideas for the taking.  And if you are in luck, you might even find the games somewhere, someday for yourself. At least it's a nostalgic trip! Enjoy!

Jaap de Goede 2010

Classic RPG Review #1: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons

Dungeon Masters Guide and Players Handbook
by Gary Gygax
TSR/Random House 1979

Yes, I am speaking of the first edition here. Probably no one had an inkling then that a fourth edition game would be upcoming now, nor that it would become such big business. The Dungeon Masters Guide is heavier and twice as thick as the Player's handbook, and it looks more like a mysterious spellbook than most game books look nowadays. It lacks gloss, the artwork is not as slick yet, and the small typesetting looks a bit as if it is a 1920's book about the Assassins and the Knights Templar. And yet there are small comic strips that indicate otherwise. It looks like something you could find on a dusty shelf in an antique bookshop. There are indexes and glossaries, but neither makes it more insightful to what the book is about.

The same goes for the Players Handbook. It is hard to make out what a game of Dungeons & Dragons must be like just from gleaning these pages. No wonder that many students used to say that you must be a genius to play Dungeons & Dragons. This may of course explain the high percentage of nerdiness of the game too.

But both books are extremely intriguing too, and once you kind of know what the game is about, they become treasure troves of possibilities. The Players Handbook is full of magick spells (not real ones, despite the rumors), and the Dungeon Masters Guide is full of descriptions of magick items and tables full of attributes of relics and artefacts. Monsters you have to find elsewhere, in the separate Monster Manual. It may be that I do no longer have the wish to learn a game by heart as I did with this one, but this is one of the very few games with such a strong treasure trove feeling. Only Talislanta and the older editions of Traveller have the same effect on me. Every page may hold something new, a new bizarre idea, a something that could have come from Jack Vance's Dying Earth.

My favorite from the books are the Random Dungeon Generation Tables. These you can even use when you are stuck alone, and you can run your own party of adventurers against the dice. Nowadays we have computers to do this for you, with graphical interfaces galore, but it still holds its charm. For some time at least, because to be honest, my gaming also evolved.

Dungeons & Dragons then, yet more than it is now, was about campaigning. Every adventure in D&D is a small scale “search & destroy” mission. Find the subterranean network (called Dungeon), seek out the monsters, slay them and take their treasure. As the personae of the players gather more experience, the missions become tougher, the traps more deadly, the monsters more vicious and the value of the loot more capable of destroying the local economy. And basically that's it. No storytelling, no character development as you might find in a novel, no more social interaction than “hey, that's my treasure!”. Yet as I remember it, it used to be fun while I was a teenager.

The rules of the game are somewhat obtuse. But once you get the hang of them, they are not too difficult. It's just that there are quite a few possible modifiers to every die roll, and quite a few exceptions to the rule. Most Game Masters (Dungeon Master in this game) thus ignored these. The game is fairly well balanced throughout the mid-levels, but the game breaks down with beginning heroes and high-level campaigns. This goes especially for the wizards. A beginning magic user may feel like a one shot pea shooter who can be wiped of this earth by a mosquito bite. A high level magi however, bores the rest of the party to death as he fireballs all dangerous foes to oblivion with the flick of his wrist, leaving nothing for the others to do.

The D&D priest class is fairly unique, as many games avoid religion altogether. D&D just avoids the big three monotheistic ones in name. But considering the description of the average priest in the game they are pretty much Christian. Even the supplement Deities & Demigods could change little in this. Priests have to stick more to behavioural codes than others, and they are the only ones capable of actually curing wounds, diseases and insanities. They are the only ones capable of scaring the undead such as vampires and ghouls away. But priests may hardly use violence, and must be goodie two shoes all the time. In practice this makes the priest indispensable in a game, and no one wants to play one either.

Another near unique feature is the “alignment”. A behaviour code to which the player has to stick. Alignment may vary between “good” and “evil” and between “law” and “chaos”, with “neutral” in between on both scales. Players can choose an alignment mostly freely, but Chaotic Evil seldom works in a group. And what does “lawful good” mean exactly? One paladin in our game argued that he was “good”, so anyone who opposed him was automatically “evil”, and he could murder them wholesale. Probably such silly logic led to alignment being skipped in other games.

All in all though, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is a beautifully crafted, highly inspirational game. Even if the rules are not state of the art anymore, and never were balanced or clear enough in the first place, the wealth in ideas and the treasure trove feeling of the books well make up for this. Also this is the full fledged version of the game that laid the groundwork for all other role playing games. It may be worth a place on your shelf for that fact alone.

RULES 3/5 
(rules are neither especially elegant, flexible nor realistic but they set a fair standard between game masters)
(one of the few true treasure trove games, supplements were available galore, and the game fit well in the traditions of Conan or Fafrd and the Grey Mouser)
(the game is almost impossible to learn without outside help, once learned however – when most exceptions are ignored – it's fairly fast to play, the game itself is limited to search & destroy military style missions )
(fantasy with humans, elves, dwarves and halflings – i.e. Non-copyrighted hobbits, class based, progression in general levels by gaining experience points, d20 based combat, separate roll for damage, fatigue and health are measured in the same “hit points”, spells are memorized in available slots giving a Jack Vance feel, behaviour codes called “alignment” and some strict rules for possible weapons and armour for each class – i.e. Profession)