Episode 131: Quite Gnostic In Places

This month, Mike and Roger dissect Mongoose Traveller and a couple of campaigns Mike has run with it.

We mentioned: Kult and more Kult at the Bundle of Holding (ending on 6 November), Arkham Gazette at the Bundle of Holding (ending on 1 November), “The Alice in Wonderland Thing”, JAGS Wonderland (also downloadable), Secrets of the Ancients, GURPS Illuminati, Les Misérables and Javert, though now Michael thinks of it the character in the scenario also has elements of Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick, Islands in the Rift, Patricia C. Wrede’s writing advice, Roger’s trade software, GURPS Spaceships, and Starship bridge simulator (this is the one Roger has played; there are now others that do similar things).

Striker is indeed a minatures wargame based around Traveller. The extracted-from-Azhanti-High-Lightning game Michael was thinking of was probably Snapshot. See also the canonical list of Traveller boxed games.

The Kaufman Retrograde is a tactic for Star Fleet Battles which takes advantage of two things: most ship weapons fire into the forward arc, and torpedoes and similar weapons don’t inherit the velocity of their launching ship but travel at a set speed on the board. So you face the enemy and retreat. You can shoot at them just as much as they shoot at you; and their torpedoes have to cover the range plus your movement, while yours have to cover the range minus their movement. In the version of Artemis Roger played, the computer-controlled enemy ships blindly move towards the players’ ship at a fixed speed, it’s easy to control the separation between you and them, and torpedoes have strictly limited range, which makes the tactic even more effective.

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Music by Kevin MacLeod at incompetech.com and other royalty-free sources.


‘Mayday’ might be the Traveller space combat game that Mike is struggling to recall.

I thought we actually mentioned that—though I may be wrong. Thanks!

My discontent with the Traveller ‘Islands’ campaign boils down to:

(1) It cemented my feeling that I realy, really, really HATE playing more than one character. I want to be able to get my teeth into my character and spend a few sessions figuring out what their personality is. Constantly jumping from one PC to another meant I never really got a feel for either of them. Also the jumping was never for personality reasons… It was never because a fight broke out and a cowardly character ran away and a brave character leaped into the fray. It was usually for game mechanic reasons… like which had the highest Drive skill.

(2) The randomness of char gen SUCKED. And I couldn’t even correct that randomness by spending XP because gaining that was also RANDOM - and biased towards PCs who had (randomly) got an Education bonus! One of my characters did not improve a single fekking skill over the course of the whole bloody campaign. Screw you, Traveller!

(3) The trading… I deeply resented how much time it ate up which could have been dedicated to RP and plot. Kudos to Roger for writing code to automate a ton of it. The game concept was we were secret agents pretending to be traders. Great, fine. Doing secret agent stuff is cool. If James Bond is pretending to be a stock market trader, M doesn’t insist he does actual stock market trading for most of the day! :slight_smile:

(4) Mike is right - I had no clue who the bad guys were who turned up at the end and attempted to attack our ship. There were too many factions out to get us, and the monthly gap between games meant I’d forgotten which faction was from where and why they were miffed at us. The fact that Traveller maps are about stellar/gas giant cartography rather than political boundaries doesn’t help.

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Re your point 3, my memory of 1980s gaming is that there was a lot more openness to minigames - let’s do a space combat, let’s do trading, let’s design ships. Now, at least if it’s in-session, it tends to feel to me like a distraction from the business of playing the character.


I think that might have been the shortest span of time between the start of the podcast and saying the line that became the episode’s title.

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Indeed, but my recollection is that even back in the Eighties many of the sub-games were not well designed to engage the whole group with interesting, consequential choices to make in character (nor even out of character). The trading game in Traveller always struck me as the epitome of uggh, requiring a great deal of fussy attention to inconsequential detail but no opportunities for characterisation, and producing result that were neither contextually plausible nor fruitful in opportunities nor incentives for adventure. And it wasn’t anything peculiar to Traveller: no game had an enjoyable subgame in which whole group of gamers could engaged in character making consequential choices for a single ship. Star Fleet Battles could be fun for wargamers, but only if each player going their own ship or squadron.

So I came out of the Eighties with the conclusion that an SF RPG needs rules for [designing and building | trading in | combat between] spaceships just as much and for the same reason that Call of Cthulhu or a '30s pulp adventure game needs the corresponding rules for pre-WWII merchant and naval vessels.

Every adventure and every campaign needs PCs who are motivated to do the things that the adventure/campaign is focused on the PCs doing. The task of creating motivation starts with the designer who needs to clearly communicate what is expected of the PCs and to provide plausible motivations. It then goes to the GM (who may be the designer) to make sure all the players understand and to guide their choices of characters to include those motivations. Ultimately the players are responsible for their characters’ motivations and to find ways to have their characters be engaged.

As a Pretentious Roleplayer™, I don’t need mechanical hooks to get me to have my character behave in certain ways. If I create a twitchy, easily-angered character (I play one in real life!), then I will just act twitchy and be quick to anger. That the game don’t include rules for such character behavior does not matter.

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Yes, and therefore every campaign needs something for each of the PCs to do. If you have something like a trading sub-game or a ship combat sub-game in which there is nothing for most characters to do, the PCs can’t be motivated to do any thing, and the adventure or campaign cannot have what every adventure and campaign needs.

My thesis is that a lot of minigames (particularly the “design a thing” ones) were used a way of getting gamelike activity in the gap between actual play sessions, before online interaction was widely available and it became easy just to chat about games all day.

The thing I mentioned in the show but couldn’t find in time for the show notes was “Star Trader” by Paul Elliott, published by his Zozer Games. It’s effectively a wrapper for the Traveller trade system (any version will work, though it’s designed for Mongoose-1), generating random complications, encounters, etc., for the solo player. (It doesn’t seem to be available any more; it’s been supplanted by a more general solo-RPG-based-on-Traveller system.)

I will request one exception to your “no game had an enjoyable subgame in which whole group of gamers could [be] engaged in character making consequential choices for a single ship”: the FASA Star Trek Starship Tactical Combat Simulator. You lay out bridge stations and have the PCs directly involved in character. Engineering balances power between weapons, shields and movement; Helm converts power into movement points; Weapons chooses what to power and fire when; Damage Control reinforces shields and manages repairs.

All right, it does largely depend on player skill rather than character skill (and the poor GM is meant to do this whole process on their own for every enemy ship), but it achieves its purpose of in-character involvement. I see it as ancestral to the combat system in GURPS Spaceships, which similarly promotes character involvement, and which I used with some success in my Wives and Sweethearts campaign (PCs were junior officers of the Royal Navy in space).

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I’m glad that works for you. It doesn’t as well for me, even now, I find myself prone to put my thumb on the scales and play down the PC’s problems when the results really matter. (I will absolutely agree that this is a matter for personal taste, rather than there existing one best style of gaming.)

This is something we may well come back to in the near future.

Many modern games, it seems to me, pile the ‘make a thing’ mini-games into the laps of the whole party in the set up and downtime sections of the game. You are expected to help design the party as a seperate entity from the players and to guide and develop it as the campaign progresses.

I see this especially in FORGED IN THE DARK games and also in REIGN. It’s there in the upgrade of MONSTER OF THE WEEK in CODEX OF WORLD and definitely in ARS MAGICA. It’s probably in EXALTED if I could ever figure out how to run it.

There is a tendency to have a few players who really enjoy that sort of things taking the lead in such creation and upkeep and as a GM I sometimes feel I’m driving the players.

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Fair. My impression is that these are relatively simple systems, not complicated enough to be fun to play independently like Traveller trade; they tend to be more “OK, decide what sort of band of good-guy villains you are and who’s in which slot”. This may be a biased sample on my part.

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A fair few of them have base-building element to them which only happens after the campaign has started. In Forged in the Dark it is represented in the setting as your gang increasing its turf and growing in power & influence. In things like Mutant Year Zero or United Earth Defence you specifically come back after a mission, deal with the problems which have happened at base while you were away and spend your ‘treasure’/xp to make your base better (happier inhabitants, stronger walls, etc).

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The issue Mike describes with preparing characters for Secrets of the Ancients - finding a balanced intersection of “interested in delving into this mystery”, “has a lot left to learn”, “willing to face considerable hazard in pursuit of this objective” and “not very prepared for considerable hazard” - reminds me strongly of setting up Cthulhu scenarios, etc. to avoid the PCs sensibly exchanging glances and walking away.


We had planned a second segment talking more about that sort of thing, but we’d already rattled on quite a bit about Traveller. We certainly have more to say on the subject.


How far ahead of time do you record the sessions?
Have you thought about soliciting topics? For example, we are suggesting a topic on “Setting (and enforcing) expectations for PCs” (or similar).

Usually 1-3 weeks. And we always welcome suggestions!

I’m slightly puzzled by the music that fades in and out mid-segment around 1:10-1:11 and is rather louder than normal for a background SFX. Unless something was actually manifesting in Roger’s gazebo as you recorded?