Adam's Traveller stuff

Judd asked me about some games I ran, and I used that thread to talk about Basic D&D and Keep on the Borderlands.

This thread will be about the Traveller games.


  • What are the two scenarios about? Where do the players start off? What is compelling them into action?

  • Background

    Traveller is the D&D of science fiction RPGs. It originally came out in 1977 in the form of "three little black books" (LBB). That's basically called "Classic Traveller" these days. It has all the hallmarks of a 70's RPG, with no unified mechanic and lots of exceptions and subsystems. It's also pretty genius and hella fun.

    Like D&D, it's been revised and republished and spun-off many times. There are ten or so different editions, including a GURPS version and a D20 version. The most common edition seems to be the one by Mongoose Publishing (called MGT), which just released its 2nd Edition (MGT 2e). I use MGT 1e still for my games.

    Over the past almost-forty years, Traveller has developed a single, enormous universe and timeline, called The Imperium. It's basically absent from the LBB version, but soon after it starts showing up in rules and supplements. Imagine if TSR and Wizards of the Coast only published adventures in the World of Greyhawk all these years, how rich and developed it would be. Traveller is like that.

    I rarely run games in the Imperium setting! I don't particularly like it. There's nothing wrong with it; it just doesn't push my personal buttons. And I like to make settings. In Traveller parlance, these are Alternative Traveller Universes (ATUs).

    I have attended TravellerCon USA every year for the past 3-4 years. It's 30-60 old white dudes in a large conference room. I think we had 6-7 tables this year. There are a few exceptions to the demographics: a couple women, a few younger people, one person of color. Traveller seems to attract old white dudes; really, I think it started that way and those old white dudes were young white dudes in the 70's and they still play.

    I came to Traveller only recently (4 years), having read it and discarded it in 1983 or so. I read PDFs of every version of the rules, read discussions comparing the versions, and finally settled on the Mongoose edition, which had nice, unified mechanics and modern sensibilities, and active support and product releases. It's also OGLed, which was a big plus for my product ambitions.
  • In the few years since I started poking around at Traveller, I've invented three or four ATUs.

    Nova Roma is a future-Earth setting where people adopted Classic Roman dress and titles and colonization strategies for squee reasons. The main changes to the rules are around space travel.

    Normally, ships "jump" from star system to star system through a void "jump space." Every journey takes two weeks for inexplicable reasons, regardless of the distance traveled. Jump drives that move the ships are rated in terms of how far they can jump: a jump-1 drive can travel one parsec; a jump-2 drive can travel two parsecs; et cetera.

    In Nova Roma, ships isolate themselves from the universe in a sort of black bubble, then dive into hard-to-find portals inside of stars. These "sundivers" don't know where the portal will lead, but it will almost certainly take them to a star system that has an interesting planet full of Earthlike people. The secret backstory involves advanced AIs seeding worlds for millions of years.

    So you have Naval officers dressed like Roman Centurions, diving into stellar wormhole portals, popping up in new systems, exploring them, enforcing Pax Romana in a very politically uncorrect manner, and doing lots of science stuff to discover more portals.

    The adventure I wrote for the setting is basically Apocalypse Now in this setting. The ship officers have to deal with a rogue ship captain who is going all Colonel Kurtz on the local population (which is far less technologically advanced than the Nova Romans).
  • @Judd, is this the kind of stuff you want to talk about? Is there another direction you want me to go?
  • This is perfect!
  • I've never played Traveler, but I've heard you mention it a lot. Really enjoying this so far!
  • And I'd love to hear about your other ATU's if you want to share 'em.
  • So, what form does the game take? Is it a "jump into a random place, and encounter adventure there"?

    Are the PCs after treasure/wealth, or does something else drive them?
  • So, what form does the game take? Is it a "jump into a random place, and encounter adventure there"?

    Are the PCs after treasure/wealth, or does something else drive them?
    The rules have no advancement system per se. Once you build a character, there's very little change to skills from then on. If you want to learn a new skill, the rules basically tell you, "Great, spend months of down time studying this, and you can advance a point." You don't earn XP.

    Structurally, the game is set up for traditional sandbox play. The rules give the GM ("Referee") lots of fantastic tools for generating star systems to visit, but the GM also has to bring a ton of creativity to bear on it to make it work. Oracle is an example of a world that the system might generate. It has a Universal World Profile (UWP) of D551645-4, describing its star port (D = crappy), size (5 = medium), atmosphere (5 = thin but breathable), water (1 = very dry, 10% coverage), population (6 = in the millions), government (4 = representative democracy), law level (5 = no concealable weapons), and technology level (4 = industrial age before the combustion engine). The rules generate that code; the rest is the GM's interpretation.

    Gamewise, "you can do anything you want." Typically, this is a bunch of ex-military characters traveling from star to star in a ship that they probably "own" (the way you own the house that you pay a mortgage for) in the vein of Firefly / Serenity. (In fact, there's an unconfirmed story that Whedon based Firefly off his home Traveller campaign. It fits, in any case.)

    The rules specifically provide structure for a sort of situation generation in the form of

    * space travel and exploration (see new worlds, explore their issues)
    * trade (speculation among the stars)
    * patrons (people come to you with job offers)

    Most typically, a bunch of Traveller characters are outliers of some sort, operating just outside the law, filling in the cracks in the interstellar trade system in a minimally small freighter starship, doing odd jobs that would feel at home in a Cyberpunk 2020 game, and running from the law. Dukes of Hazzard in space.

    It's definitely not jump to a random place. Go poke around on Traveller Map and realize that's the universe a lot of players explore, with literally tens of thousands of years of in-game history there. If you're playing in The Imperium, the GM tells you what year it is, and the group picks a place to start play from those tens of thousands of systems, and then a lot of the creativity work requires extrapolation from known data about the setting's history and places and factions.
  • Another of my ATUs.

    Nova Roma Future is the far future of the Nova Roma universe. It's set after a huge tech crash caused by technological singularity, rampant AI wars, and software virus warfare.

    (Note that one of the official Traveller settings has "The Virus" which was badly executed by the designers, pissing off everyone who loved The Imperium setting; mine is similar, but different, and anyway it isn't a spoiler for the game's official setting, since my virus morphs my ATU.)

    Three AIs have come to the forefront, protecting humanity in their own warped ways. I don't have the details in front of me and I haven't run it in a year, so bear with me on names and stuff. One of them wants to develop humanity by challenging them with wars. One wants to evolve them through science and genetics and psionics. I can't remember the third. They've all figured out how to use the sundiver wormholes to travel through time, not just space.

    So time travel.

    I thought really long and hard about time travel, and I think I bounced some ideas around here on Story Games last year. The trouble with all time travel stories is this. You have the ability to time travel at time Z. There's an event in the past at time A that you want to change. You go back to time A, change the event, and then events B, C, D... leading up to Z--causing Z--change. Now back at Z' (Z-prime), you no longer have a reason to go back in time to fix anything. It's a paradox in any system where you can actually change time to affect your own timeline (and not some Many Worlds system).

    This bothered me enough to "fix" it. Not perfectly, but close.

    Rule 1: The paradoxical problem above basically still happens. The AI who chooses to send a team back in time will totally "forget" that it did that, because it will have no reason to do it after the change.

    Rule 2: Time events are elastic. They try really hard not to change, or even change back. Still, the river of events can be diverted.

    Rule 3: The time travelers themselves are special. The time travel mechanism is like the space travel mechanism--you surround yourself in a black globe that isolates you from this universe briefly so you can jump into a wormhole that travels in space-time. The travelers are therefore immune to these rules, more or less. They'll remember the changes they make, remember how things were before the change, etc. You can also travel with a computer full of data and it won't be lost when events change.

    Rule 4: There's something weird about time travel. Computers can't navigate it. Only characters with advanced psionic intuition can feel their way through it. So you need the Astrogation skill and psionic ability to enter the wormhole and get to the time you want to reach. The AIs need humans to fight their time war.

    So the AI sends a team back with a computer full of encrypted data and a "key" that it will accept. When the team returns, it loads the data and gets its memory back so it knows why the team left again.

    And yes, in games I ran, one team did figure out how to hack the data and feed the AI lies. Of course.

    The specific game I ran at TravellerCon involved a team sent back to stop the events that had happened in the Apocalypse Now game that I ran in the prior slot. One or two players played in both sessions, so they got to travel into the past and stop their own characters. That was hella fun.
  • Merchant of Dennis is an adventure, not a setting. It is run in a very generic version of The Imperium. I really never mention any stock setting stuff, but anyone could run this adventure in any generic Traveller setting.

    I really call the setting The Oblivion Sector, because that's the name of the sector of space it's set in. In Traveller, you generate sectors of 4x4 subsectors. Each subsector is a hex map of 10x8 hexes with generally 30-50% of the hexes having a system in them. I've only developed one subsector (Lightbox) in Oblivion, and dropped a system called "Dennis" in it.

    In The Merchant of Dennis, the players are washed out Naval officers and enlisted. (That's Imperial Navy, in spaceships.) I made up a dozen really sad characters who are basically competent but have really pitiful life stories. They're all buddies and they had a dream of someday leaving Naval service and buying a small starship of their own and plying the space lanes as traders.

    It's basically the common mode of play, right? Except the rules make it relatively easy to do all of those things, assuming that it just happens. Here's your ship, and your mortgage. Go have fun.

    My adventure makes it hard. The frigate the PCs were on, the Saint Andrew, was decommissioned by a Fleet Admiral for gross negligence. Some officers went to prison. The rest of the crew were divided up and dumped on different systems "so as not to overburden any single world with your incompetence, and further taint the reputation of this fine Navy."

    Some of the characters start with Ship Shares, a game conceit that starts characters with Navy-backed shares in a future purchase of a ship, usually worth 1% of the cost. I turn that around and say that ship shares are vetted by the banks, and that the Navy won't back a purchase of a crappy ship, only a new one.

    The game involves combing over starship junk yards for hulks that are hundreds of years old, making skill checks to determine what's wrong with the ships, bartering over price, making business plans, meeting with loan officers at banks, finding other "creative" financing options through loan sharks, dealing with another St. Andrew team of more experienced asshole officers, and so on. Basically, purchasing a ship on Hard Mode.

    I have six broke starships that break the normal ship generation rules in weird ways. They rules usually let you game the system and build a perfectly optimized ship. You get the most for your money that way. These ships I built are terribly optimized. They have quirks and flaws and weird smells and bad ergonomics and hull damage. Some are just so ugly, you'd get a penalty on skill checks when trying to make deals with people who can see the ship, but maybe paint will fix it. The five times I have run this adventure, players love the "investigate the ship, figure out what is wrong, and fix it" part. Any skill is useful in this part; I have players rolling Diplomacy to see if they learn that the ship was used in an old war, and stuff like that.

    Part of the game involves being broke on a shitty planet. "Dennis" is an awful world. Not in the sense that a lot of Traveler worlds can be, with raging inferno temperatures or caustic atmospheres. It's more that it's just dull as hell. It's like a third class amusement park, strip malls, and Swindon, England's weather. One of the pregens actually has a noble title and some cash, but the rest are rather poor. There have been entire subplots around finding a place to crash for the night, or eating at food banks. And I swear, it was fun.

    The title of the adventure is an obvious allusion to Shakespeare. I loosely borrowed plot elements from Merchant of Venice, of course. I have a loan shark crime boss who will want his "pound of flesh" if the players can't repay his loans. I have a disguised noblewomen hiding from her powerful Duke father here on Dennis; she runs the junk yard.
  • Independence is my final ATU. It's a port of the American Revolution into the Traveller game. I was surprised that no one had done anything like it. Sure, there are small revolution plots in The Imperium setting, but nothing as direct as I want.

    In my setting, I replace jump travel with hyperspace travel. You don't skip any space when you travel faster than light. You just travel really fast through the space medium. It's bumpy and dangerous. Bigger ships travel faster and more safely. In fact, try to take a small ship across a large span and you'll probably die.

    It's a galaxy of modern technology, except the civilized systems are trapped in a pocket of space surrounded by large nebulae. That limits the extent of their star exploration and expansion.

    As their tech got better, their ships got better and bigger, and they started reaching across the wide nebula at their edge of explored space. They found lush garden planets on the other side of it. And these systems already had people (aliens, but basically humanoid in the Star Trek tradition). These native sophonts were intelligent and had limited space travel themselves, but nothing like what the main systems back home have.

    Royal charters and religious splinter groups colonized cities on these new planets, eventually claiming 13 separate colony systems. The various powers back in the main systems fought over them, naturally, and the Curiene monarchy even sided with the native populations against their enemy (thus, the Curiene-Sophont War).

    Now it's 2774, and the colonies are starting to talk about rebellion against the home worlds. At first, it was about taxation without representation and other grievances, but really, these colonies just want to be independent from the empire that is trying to rule them from across the great nebula, 4-8 weeks' travel away.

    The actual adventure I run at cons is a direct port of the story of Henry Knox liberating the cannons from Ft. Ticonderoga to save Boston.

    The queen's ships have blockaded a rebelling planet. The colonies have formed a flotilla to go fight them directly, but they're vastly outnumbered and outgunned. A young doctor who keeps getting rejected from the Army remembers a story about abandoned meson cannons on a nearby planet and thinks he can use them to turn the tide of the war.

    The adventure starts with him trying to convince the Fleet Admiral of the rebels (the Washington equivalent) to let him go get these cannons, which are buried in ice on another planet, deep in Ondella (unfriendly native sophont) territory. They fetch the cannons, return them to the fleet, and figure out how to use them to attack the Queen's blockade.

    There's a fun interlude when they return from getting the cannons, and the Fleet Admiral tells them that it doesn't matter anymore, because six of the colonies are pulling out of the agreement. But if the PCs can convince just three of the delegates to come back...

  • What made it fun, Adam? Any lessons learned?
  • I ran Independence three times at DEXcon and once at TravellerCon. The first run at DEX was really dodgy:

    Skills for the pregens were unevenly distributed so some characters hogged all the spotlight. For the subsequent games, I made sure everyone could participate in every part of the adventure.

    Players had a hard time understanding the setting and remembering the made-up names of things. After the first session, I drew some space maps to show how systems related to each other and wrote the important names on index cards. For the TravellerCon game, I included a cheat sheet of 6-7 important names with brief explanations.

    At first, I kept the serial numbers filed off of the American Revolution stuff. I quickly changed my mind and just told the players, "Yeah, the Curiene systems are the French. The Doctor PC is basically Henry Knox. This PC is basically Lafayette. Admiral Lunderham is General Washington."
  • Oh, I haven't mentioned that in Independence, one PC was an android who was enslaved by the "southern" colonies and escaped to join the revolution. My favorite story about that character: My third DEXcon game was a family of four (mom, dad, daughter 11, son 9). Once they stopped "helicoptering" their kids and let them make their own decisions, it went great. At some point, the girl asks her mom, "Why does my character [named "TK-44"] not have a real name like everyone else?" Mom looks at me for help. I say, "Well, TK-44 is a robot who escaped from a mean owner who doesn't think you're a real person. The owner named you. You can have any name you want now, though. Do you think you're a real person?" The girl understood, perfectly. It was beautiful.
  • I always get defensive when people ask me "Why is this fun?" That's my issue to deal with, not yours.

    What made it fun for me? The players having tons of fun. <=)

    For them? Different things for the different settings.

    Independence is fun because they know it's an American Revolution story set in space, and they like being heroic rebels and fighting redcoats in battle armor, and arguing Constitutional compromises. They get to apply their knowledge of American history to the game as much as they like. We get into role-play about bicameral representation, the Three-Fifths Compromise, and other touchy and awful things about slavery and imperialism.

    Merchant of Dennis is fun because it turns a lot of the old Traveller trope on its head, and also because I am good at making players miserable in a really fun way. In fact, it might be My Thing. Another thing that seems to work really well, is all the Color that I give players: details about Dennis, very specific problems with six different junk ships, three different banks, the sleazy bar / strip club run by Shellick the Loan Shark, and so on. Color is the most important thing here.

    Nova Roma is fun because the players have a complicated situation and many competing strategies. The six pregens each have different agendas and skillsets, and approach problems in different ways. The game played out differently each time I ran it. Some hide their ship and try not to be seen as long as possible. Some come right out and announce themselves. Sometimes they assassinate the general. Sometimes they negotiate with him. One group managed to arrest him without a shot being fired. Some of the games turn into military operations; some are diplomatic. There's (gentle) PVP action in most of the games, too, due to the competing agendas I wrote into the pregens. Both sides have access to nuclear missiles, mind you, so the stakes are very high.

    Nova Roma Future, or whatever I called it, is fun because TIME TRAVEL. Especially if you played in the prior game, and now you're undoing what your other characters did. That was amazing. But even independent of that, it is fun for the same reasons Nova Roma is. Tension, a complex political scenario, and high nuclear stakes. Choices matter.
  • Adam,

    I was mostly asking about Merchant of Dennis! Sorry if I sounded accusatory.
    I made up a dozen really sad characters who are basically competent but have really pitiful life stories. [...] There have been entire subplots around finding a place to crash for the night, or eating at food banks. And I swear, it was fun.
    also because I am good at making players miserable in a really fun way. In fact, it might be My Thing.
    I noticed you have the same thing going on, to whatever extent, in the Brass City.

    It sounds like a challenge to play that kind of material and make it really cool - but, at the same time, it sounds really appealing!

    So I was hoping you could talk about what special skills, techniques, or other devices or tips you might have about playing in this style.

    I can guess that part of it is selling it properly to players - creating the right expectations. Your prep materials and the pitch both sound like they really get the players to buy into the concept that we're going to be celebrating the struggles of some really hard-up characters, who've received the short end of the stick. There's some humour there, and it sounds like you present it really well

    But, after that? What do we do to make "eating at food banks" fun? Are there things to focus on, things to avoid?

    There's something very appealing about this kind of play, but it also sounds like it could easily go wrong. (Vincent's recent game, "Hand to Mouth", dealt with this, and apparently playing it left such a bad taste in his mouth that he now says no one should play it.)
  • I like the concept of a technological world faced with a resolutely nontechnological problem like the psionic time travel. My present game is a comedic Fate Core game about a punk band who are wizards that fight monsters. "So do all bands fight monsters?" I asked. "Or just you?" "Oh, all bands are wizards and fight monsters." said the players. I've repeatedly had to point out that you can't science your way out of a situation that you music-ed your way into. Cool stuff.
  • I was mostly asking about Merchant of Dennis! Sorry if I sounded accusatory.
    No, no. I really mean it when I say it's my issue. I'm just feeling a bit emotionally raw right now, as a friend of twenty years died yesterday, so I might be oversharing.


    I pitched City of Brass on G+ and someone responded, "If I wanted to play being poor and miserable, D&D is the last game I'd want to do it in." Fair enough!

    Player buy-in is essential. I think my pitch now is something like:

    You're squatters in the worst broken-down building in the worst broken-down neighborhood in the worst borough in the worst city in the world. You are desperate, hungry, and poor and have no other options. It's miserable, but I promise we'll have a blast being miserable together. You'll confront the social problems facing you and your friends and maybe make the world a better place, if not for yourselves, then maybe for some other people.

    When you're playing a game of misery, you need victories. That's true of the Caves of Chaos and its total party kills, and it's true of the City of Brass with its systemic oppression and starvation. Things are set up so it's not easy to win, but you can snatch small victories now and then, and those are golden.

    Player choice has to matter. You have to enforce consequences for every decision, good or bad, fairly. When the party got into an escalating war with a rival gang in the neighborhood in City of Brass, they went to the leader to parlay and fix it. But then one of the PCs went all Leroy Jenkins on the situation and a fight broke out, and the rival gang killed all six of them. Just like that. How do you like your blue-eyed boy now?

    The players laugh about it. They know it was fair. They know it was stupid, and not even their fault (except that one player). Shit went down. They stuck with their friends. It got them killed.

    But that problem is still around, and the rival gang is still out there with a hate-on for the squatters in the commune, and maybe they'll redeem it someday with new characters. Maybe they'll get a small victory there. Maybe a big one.

    If choices don't matter--if I start railroading things--then it's just misery theater. Agency matters so much down in the mud, because you have to believe that your choices can get you out of it. You have to believe, as a player, that there is a path made up of your own choices that might get you out of a system rigged against you.

    Did I mention how political City of Brass is?

    I bring in real-world politics in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. There are temples offering free food to people willing to attend services and think about converting. There are floating eyes that fucking scan people's dreams at night to root out terrorists. There is bias against poor people like the PCs, doubly so if they're one of the minority races, trebly so if they're one of the "scary" races like tieflings or half-orcs.

    When the supposed friend of the tiefling bard / artist (played by Jabari Weathers, RL RPG artist and a person of color) goes cold on him because of his race, and Jabari laughs and says, "Microaggression," everyone at the table knows what is going on. This is a social justice game, and the players nod thoughtfully as terrible things happen to them just because they're poor.

    I built this setting to fill a weird open table requirement, but also to get out of murderhobo mode while still playing D&D. I wish I could remember the details of this one encounter. Basically, a player wanted his character to make an NPC give him something, and the NPC refused and was a little rude. The player reacted by suggesting that he might kill the NPC and take it. I raised my eyebrow.

    Me: "You can do that, sure. What's your alignment?"
    Him: "Neutral good."
    Me: "Uh, I think if you kill him, your alignment changes to Neutral Evil."
    Him: "Evil? Really?"
    Me: "Uh, murdering a dude in cold blood because you can't get your way?"
    Him: "Oh."

    It's like D&D had him so trained to just kill things and take their stuff that it hadn't occurred to him that it's usually murder. I mean, sure, there's a fiction that goblins aren't people and the only good goblin is a dead goblin, and that's fine. City of Brass isn't the dungeon. This was a human bartender in a neighborhood bar. That's fucking murder. (He didn't end up murdering him after all.)

    Is it less fun to have to worry about murdering people and find other solutions? Perhaps for some D&D players who just want to escape to a fantasy world, and kill things and take their stuff, sure. By and large, though, my players keep coming back for more social justice and personal abuse. A few bemoan the lack of "Adventure," so it's probably not the game for them. No game is for everyone.
  • Oops. I've crossed the streams. This was to be the Traveller thread.

    What makes eating a food bank fun? Problem solving. Once they have discovered a food bank, the problem is "solved" until they want a better solution. Don't belabor it. Move past it.

    I'll bring it up now and then as color, but it's a solved problem and has ceased to be interesting except as color for a dire situation and a reminder that they want more in life. It's only useful as a prompt as a new problem. "Okay, now we're eating. But we're eating oatmeal and powdered eggs. Certainly there's something better out there for us."

    What makes going down into a dark dungeon full of deadly traps and hateful monsters fun? Well, solving those problems. If you turn dungeon crawling into a miserable, wet, smelly experience and dote on those issues without giving players some problem to solve, it'll be drudgery. D&D puts obstacles in the way, in the form of resource management (spells, torches, daily abilities, sleep, hours, etc.).

    In my "slice of life" Traveller games, I do something similar. Where are you eating and sleeping? How do you use your skills to make your situation better? Here's an opportunity to do a job for the loan shark, but it's dangerous and he doesn't give a shit if you get imprisoned over it, but at least he's paying well. Or you can go legit and try to convince a bank to loan you the money. What's your business plan for that? Are you really going to meet the loan officer in those clothes?

    Problems in search of creative player solutions.
  • Great answers, Adam!

    I'd love to hear more, but at the moment I'm not sure exactly what to ask, so I'll go think for a while, instead. Thanks!

    Also, my condolences about your dear friend. I hope that discussing all this gaming stuff is a good respite from otherwise raw emotions! Sometimes it can be a good outlet; I hope it's serving as such for you.
  • It's been an interesting exercise, trying to look back at how I run a game and explain it as a system. I don't mind doing that, but I'm not sure I can always unpack it for you.

    If you have specific questions about specific things, that's easier for me to answer. I enjoy it, either way (specific or general), so don't worry about asking stuff.


    And thanks for the condolences. More than condolences, though, I need the world to fill the hole replace the light my friend Mike left when he died.

    Without exaggeration, he was the best human being I ever knew: kind, friendly, honest, welcoming, smiling, caring, listening. Literally, I have never heard anyone say anything bad about him. If everyone could be just a little more like him, the world would be slightly less shitty.
  • Adam,

    I will try to be a tiny bit more like your friend Mike, starting right now. Maybe, if enough people do the same, it will be enough to replace some of his presence here on this planet. So sad to hear!


    Ok, I will ask more!

    If I imagine myself playing a game about homeless, starving people - or anyone in a really pathetic situation and worn down by the System - it sounds pretty grim. Why? Because I know so many forces exist to keep those people down.

    When I hear "find a food bank", or a shelter, I know that what comes next isn't quite "problem solved", but just opens a can of new problems, and new prejudices and competitors to deal with.

    It sounds like your approach to keep it interesting is to focus on the problem-solving aspect, and to give the players something to engage with and have a chance of overcoming. How do you keep those challenges exciting, instead of being, say, about getting kicked down over and over by people who don't care about you?

    "Are you really going to meet the loan officer in those clothes?"

    How do you get a fun session out of that?

    If, as you say, it's your "Thing", I imagine you've got a bunch of go-to tricks or techniques, whether conscious or un-.

    I'd love to have some more tools at my disposal to engage with this kind of challenge in a fun way! I would consider it a gaming triumph.
  • I don't make a session out of any one of those things. I make a conflict out of it.

    The "those clothes?" thing was a specific example from the last time I ran Merchants of Dennis. The two characters were going to wear their naval uniforms, but they weren't ranked anymore because of the discharge circumstances, and they'd been sleeping in those clothes, so it was less than optimal when asking for a loan for 20 million credits.

    One of the two characters was the aforementioned noble-ranked one. He had some cash and was willing to drop it on bespoke clothing. He tipped their local guide for a ride to a good custom tailor, and there were some negotiations about price, a Broker skill check, and 5000 credits spent. Clothes befitting a man of his station. And slightly less nice clothes for the non-noble character, at the noble's expense.

    If the noble character with money had not been selected (two out of four groups didn't!), then they'd be in tougher circumstances, right? Now they're looking at cleaning up their naval uniforms, or finding a thrift store, or making a friend and borrowing some money, or borrowing a suit from someone.

    The thing is, when I hand the group a problem like this, I don't know the answer.

    That's what's fun for everyone. How do you guys solve this problem? I don't even know! Surprise me with your creativity. Maybe your idea will require your character's skills (thus dice); maybe not. This is a staple of the old school gaming style.

    There's not much fun in "find a food bank," but there's fun in "You don't know whence your next meal is coming. What do you do?" I don't suggest they find a food bank. I tell them they're hungry. Maybe they suggest a food bank. Maybe they steal food out of the back of a restaurant. Maybe they panhandle. Maybe they search the Wanted pages for a part-time job. Maybe they have a local Contact on their sheet, and they beg for a couple nights on their couch and a warm meal or two. Except for panhandling, all of those things have happened in my Dennis sessions, all player-driven.

    If I told them that they were hungry and had to find a food bank or starve, that would feel (to me) like heavy-handed railroading. I just tell them they're hungry. They start asking questions:

    "Is there a food bank or something?"
    "What opportunities are there for honest work around here?"
    "Do I know anyone on this planet?"
    "Are there any 'soft' targets that we could raid, like an unattended donut truck or something?"

    Let's say they ask about a food bank. Yeah, there's one. Now they can eat, but maybe they're taking food from someone who seems to need it much more. There's also a sense of, Man, we'reTravellers. We shouldn't be eating at a food bank. We're supposed to be smuggling illegal spices past space corvettes. But also a sense that, if they can just solve a few problems now, they'll be out of this situation and doing what they want real soon now. Keep reminding them of the goal and never take away hope.

  • Let me posit:

    Games are fun because of choices and victories, and learning as a result of choices and defeats.

    It doesn't matter that you're playing a broke, dirty, homeless dude as long as you have choices, a chance to learn how to change things, and lots of little victories. It can be fun.

    You read the situation.
    You come up with a plan.
    You execute that plan. Some things work. Some don't. You learn.
    Some things seem to be outside your control. The System. The Man. The fucking dice.
    You learn to work with that.
    When things go your way, your situation changes a little bit. New options open up.
    New options mean new choices.
    You push forward. You win some, you lose some.
    Winning feels really good. Celebrate those victories.
    Losing feels really bad, but as players, we can laugh at our characters' plights.
    At the end of the game, you're in a better place than when you started. Talk about that.
  • Good answers, Adam. I am a big believer in your, uh, posited thesis. Challenge-based adventuring, and celebrating victory and defeat, is a huge source of fun, and it can be mined under any circumstances.

    I doubt that's all that's necessary to making this work, however. I'm pretty sure I've had many sessions where that was in place, but it still didn't make un-fun activities engaging.

    Can you think of any other things you do, as GM, to make this kind of play fun?

    Do you bring in any particular sort of fictional material in order to engage the players?

    How do you handle plans or attempts which don't seem like they would work, without stalling the players?
  • Do you live anywhere near Baltimore. I should run a game for you!

    I'm sure that I have internalized so much knowledge and technique in 37 years of GMing that I don't even know what I am doing and why it works. That's the fun of these discussions: making myself examine and unpack my technique.

    Can you think of any other things you do, as GM, to make this kind of play fun?

    Not offhand. It was hard enough to explain what I've already written. Do you bring in any particular sort of fictional material in order to engage the players?

    Hrm. I'm not sure I understand what you're asking. Do you mean, "where do you get your Color?"

    As a GM, I make up all kinds of shit on the fly, riffing off things I've done before, or things that pop into my head when I ask myself, "What would they see as they drove down the street here?" but filter that through the lens of what I think the PCs would care about, and what the players care about (two different things). Again, I'm looking to present them with leads and options so they can make interesting choices.

    Sometimes it's just atmosphere, sure.

    Each of my ATU settings has a certain mood and feel. All of my fictional output to the players is filtered through a "mood and feel" sieve. Is the game dark and depressing and stingy? Or is it grand and heroic and epic? Are the characters struggling to get by or are they hyper-competent?

    I would say that players are not particularly engaged by "fictional material" (raw Color) without an engaging Situation. Situation is king. What's the problem they're facing? Why does it matter? What is at stake?

    How do you handle plans or attempts which don't seem like they would work, without stalling the players?

    I ask them "How?"

    That is, it's not my problem. It's their problem, and it's probably a fun problem.

    Me: "You don't have anything to eat today."
    Them: "We rob the bank."
    Me: "That's a huge risk for a sandwich, but okay. There are a few banks in the city. All have the usual security systems you'd expect. What else do you want to know about them?"
    Them: "Any have lazy guards?"
    Me, rolling a laziness die for each one because I don't know. 1, 2, 6. "How do you find out if they have lazy guards?"
    Them: "Uh, we case the places one at a time. We'll be sly so they don't catch on."
    Me, wondering if I should ask how, but letting it go. "Okay, whoever is doing the casing, make an Investigate check to learn stuff, and a Stealth check to avoid getting caught. Just one, for all three banks."
    Them: "9 Investigate. And... 8 Stealth."
    Me: "Good enough. Yeah one of the banks has an young dude who can barely stay awake. He tends to stand just inside the bank, playing games on his comm."
    Them: "Jackpot. We'll prepare a robbery there."
    Me: "Okay... what's the plan? I need details. Let me draw a layout of the bank floor that you can see from a casual visit..."

    If the players' plan is just outright impossible, why not just tell them?

    Them: "We want to take over the planetary government."
    Me: "The three of you? How?"
    Them: "We go in shooting."
    Me: "You'll end up dead. I won't even roll it. Got a better plan?"
  • Having played in a couple of Adam’s Traveller adventures, I can vouch for their being fun! I’ve played in the Nova Roma scenario and “Merchants of Dennis”. Some of the fun comes from interacting with the other players, which shouldn’t be underestimated as a “GM technique” since it can be an element of adventure design. There’s plenty of room in Adam’s scenario for the PCs to debate strategies, “remember” their shared history, and build on shared interests.

    Rather than move from one pre-determined scene to another, Adam reacts as the PCs decide on different activities. Undoubtedly, some of these actions will be no surprise to him—visiting a bank loan officer, encountering the local mob boss, confronting the rogue captain, etc., but I like to think some things are unexpected, such as a party hosted by the crew for friends, acquaintances and enemies! As one of the other players described it, it was mixing a bunch of ingredients, bringing it to a boil and seeing what happens.

    I can say that I never felt “miserable”—I felt challenged. In reaction to PC plans, plausible or less plausible, Adam set a target number, then we rolled the dice to see what happened. It is a good GM technique to set the “right” target number—high enough to make hard things difficult, but never too high to be hopeless.

    In our Dennis game, to be fair, we were not struggling to find food and lodging. Although cashiered from the Navy, my character was still a noble and had a big bankroll. So we rented a suite of rooms and threw lavish parties and big tips. All in an effort to win favor with the powers that be to somehow gain a ship. It was the perfect Traveller plan, though, as another player summarized, “So, we’ve alienated the people who might provide us a loan, we’ve alienated the only person on the planet who could sell us a ship for a reasonable price, we’ve engaged in acts of blatant piracy against the Scouts, who are not only a branch of the Imperium, but also a tight-knit and vindictive bunch if they figure out what happened, we’ve called out as a criminal the biggest crime boss on the planet, and, finally, I don’t think the Ambassador was particularly happy with the party.”
  • Your particular crew was awesome, Mel. I loved that game.

    Thanks for shedding some light on what I do! It's so deeply internalized, and it helps to have an outside-looking-in view.

    There has been an interesting series of blog posts on using just the basic 3LBB game.
  • Yeah, Classic Traveller is still loved and played. There were a handful of Classic offerings at TravellerCon this year, though every GM added his own touch with additions from other games or supplements.

    Generally, if you've played one of the 2d6 versions, they're all familiar enough that you can jump into a game and figure out the differences as you. Much more than, say, D&D.
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